As a newspaper reporter, I'm constantly on the road—alone. When I travel for pleasure, I've always shied away from big groups of women: too loud, too frantic, too reminiscent of the clique I loathed in junior high. So it was somewhat unexpected that earlier this year I found myself taking two all-women trips within the space of six months. The first was to Austin, Texas, with three colleagues. We had come from four corners of the country and planned little in advance, knowing only that we wanted to eat barbecue, listen to honky-tonk music, and splurge on massages at the Lake Austin Spa. We stayed up all night, and with the help of too much red wine we debated whether we might solve the problems of work-life balance by sharing a child between us.
The second trip was far more structured, but no less indulgent. Michelle Peluso, the 32-year-old CEO of Travelocity and a friend of a friend, had organized a weekend gathering for 15 high-powered women at her parents' condo on Amelia Island, Florida. Amy Ziff, Travelocity's editor-at-large, sent out spreadsheets indicating who was in which rental car, what spa treatments had been booked, when we would play golf, and—should any of these well-laid plans go awry—how to reach each other by cell phone. One friend suggested that next year we assign required reading for discussion groups. Type A, for sure, but this trip also featured plenty of red wine and bonding.
These days, women are on the road and in the skies in record numbers. Some experts estimate that women comprise 50 percent of frequent fliers and make 70 percent of all travel decisions. "The industry looks at women and sees one big pocketbook," says Marybeth Bond, editor and author of seven travel books—including Gutsy Mamas, which is full of tips for on-the-go mothers. Her groundbreaking 1995 book, Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World, was an instant hit. Bond got a letter from a grateful flight attendant who recalled a visit to Paris in the seventies: a maître d' planted an American flag on her table as she dined alone one night "so people would know I was a tourist and not a hooker." But when Bond began proselytizing to the travel industry, saying that this was the set to watch, the response was lukewarm—some hotel companies told her they wouldn't care until women made up 50 percent of their properties' loyalty programs.
A decade later, people are finally listening. Hotels that once did little to cater to this set are now dreaming up cheeky packages like the PMS (pralines, martinis, and shopping) weekend at the Fairmont Waterfront in Vancouver or the Oh My Goddess special at the Hotel Monaco in Denver. Under Kimpton's Women in Touch program, in-room yoga amenities are provided on request. Local tourism bureaus—New York's Finger Lakes and Warren County, Ohio—are promoting their regions as female-friendly retreats. Outfitters such as Adventurous Wench, Chicks With Picks (for ice climbers), and Luna Tours are ubiquitous. Even adventure companies that are geared toward both sexes—Backroads and Butterfield & Robinson among them—say women make up the majority of their clients.
In 1971, women accounted for only 1 percent of business travelers. Today, according to a 2003 study sponsored by the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University, that number is closer to 40 percent. Hotels are responding to these solo travelers by adding safety features. In Denver, the Teatro offers its concierges as jogging partners (if you prefer to run alone, they'll lend you a two-way radio). Boston's Nine Zero Hotel developed an iris-recognition system that will eventually replace all room keys.Many hotels avoid booking single travelers in rooms with adjoining doors; others send female staff to deliver room-service orders.
But perhaps no chain has gone as far as Wyndham. As a young company—started in 1981—it was looking for ways to attract customers, and many male travelers were already locked into older hotels with points programs. In the mid-1990's, Wyndham created an advisory board to find out how to win women over. Receptionists began writing down guests' room numbers, rather than announcing them aloud, and calling ahead before delivering room service. The company also began the Women on the Way program, with a Web site that features special tips for female travelers. When Wyndham originally began tracking its demographics, in 1997, women made up 22 percent of its business travelers; now, they make up 50 percent, and generate $300 million a year for the chain.
Predictably, women-owned inns have also made safety a priority. During her many years on the road, Sally Deane, chair of the Boston Women's Health Collective, took mental notes about the limitations of male-designed hotels. She created Boston's Charles Street Inn—which opened in 2000—with these observations in mind. "When you pull up to a hotel, it should feel secure and warm," she says. Her inn has only one entrance, several unobtrusive security cameras, and a staff that greets you by name when you return at night.
The idea of creating security features for only one gender has been controversial, however. "We are highly attuned to our guests regardless of whether they are male or female," says Elizabeth Pizzinato, spokesperson for the Four Seasons. "Our staff keeps track of who enters and leaves the hotels—in an unobtrusive and casual way." At Kimpton, a proposal for women-only floors was vetoed, says COO Niki Leondakis, "because that would be segregating."
When I started my company, twenty-three years ago, if somebody was coming on one of my trips her friends would ask, 'What's wrong with your marriage?'" says Susan Eckert, founder of Adventure Women, one of the first travel agencies of its kind. Now her single-sex getaways have become a fixture in women's lives. Five years ago, full-time mom Claire Eckert (no relation to Susan) went with six close friends to the Golden Door Spa to celebrate her 40th birthday. Since then, the group has taken an annual trip—leaving husbands and children behind. Last year, they went biking in Puglia; next, they're planning a visit to Alsace. Eckert has been surprised by how much she enjoys this time alone with her girlfriends. "I went to grad school mostly with men; I worked mostly with men. I don't consider myself a 'girl person,'" Eckert says. "It's really nice to realize the value of your female friendships."
After her divorce in 1985, Sharon Wingler, a flight attendant and the author of Travel Alone & Love It!, felt safer traveling in a group. However, she later realized that she'd see more of each destination without an entourage. "I was riding on a bus through Italy with twenty other Americans, and I saw this train go by," she says. "I so wished I were on it, with the Italians." Since then, she has vacationed in 22 countries by herself, even after remarrying (to a man who likes nicer hotels than she does—and golf). Women, she says, are getting braver, and the sight of them touring solo is less unusual. Surprisingly, Wingler says, married women are increasingly traveling alone—and not just for business. "Not every couple has the same vacation time—and they don't always have the same taste in travel, either," says Wingler.
New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, author of the newly published My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere, is also married but says she still appreciates the freedom of journeying alone. "When you're traveling with someone," she explains, "it's like being in your own virtual caravan, it's a psychological Airstream that doesn't force you out. When you travel by yourself you can pick up on the serendipity of travel; you're truly there."
OCCUPATION Founder, Adventure Divas
HOME BASE Seattle
HER STORY Holly Morris, 37, dreamed up Adventure Divas six years ago while trekking though the Sumatra rain forest. A former book editor, she was inspired to "promote a role model too often missing from our media—the proactive woman who creates positive change in her community." The company began as a Web site,expanded into a PBS documentary series, and in 2005, will guide tours through countries such as India, Brazil, and Eritrea. While filming, Morris herself has circled the globe, interviewing pop singers, activists, and police chiefs.
LOST IN TRANSLATION "Everywhere I went, I'd ask the women what diva meant in their native language. Usually, it meant things like lioness, deity, light. Well, in Iran it turned out to be similar to the Farsi word for monster (deev). So there we were, trying to get people to talk to us in a country where it was risky for them to talk to us in the first place, and they think we're doing a show about women monsters. That was a real cultural faux pas."
IN HER SUITCASE What to pack when flash floods and leeches are all in a day's work?Morris never leaves home without a bottle of ibuprofen, Ziploc bags, duct tape ("for strap-ping wads of cash to my body and for fixing crappy parachutes"), and gifts (she recommends dried apricots for Central America and vitamins for Cuba, "especially calcium for the ladies.")
GIRL POWER "I visit beauty parlors in every country I go to: they are bastions of intelligence. One of my favorite pieces of advice came from a 'depilatory engineer' in Brazil. When I asked her what was the most important fact about waxing, she said, 'Know where you're going before you put the wax down.' Somehow, that strikes me as good advice for women travelers the world over."
OCCUPATION General manager, Peninsula Bangkok hotel
HOME BASE Bangkok, Thailand
HER STORY Over the past decade, Rainy Chan, 40, has rapidly risen from front office manager at the Peninsula Hong Kong to general manager of the Peninsula Bangkok—no small feat for a woman in Asia's male-dominated hotel world. Chan's professional philosophy has guided her meteoric ascent: "I keep my focus firmly on the human aspect by nurturing my staff. The guests feel this when they walk in the door."
SOUND ADVICE "Female travelers who are alone can attract a lot of unwanted attention—you're in a strange place and you don't speak the language, so you tend to stand out. I try to play it safe. I call ahead to the hotel concierge and find out the appropriate protocol. If I'm going somewhere I don't know, rather than taking a taxi, I have a limousine pick me up from the airport."
NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL "Packing properly is a serious challenge for the female business traveler. Men are usually safe with just a suit and tie, but women have to be prepared for surprises—those times when they walk into a room and realize 'Oh my goodness, I'm totally underdressed. 'It's happened to me before, and I plan to keep a supply of pashminas and plain black evening bags to lend at the concierge desk. I also want to add lighter meals and spa treatments like post-flight hydrating masks to the room-service menu."
ATTENTION TO DETAIL "A good hotel is a place where you enter and feel that the hassle of your journey has finally reached its end. It's where the staff provides discreet, sincere attention. Once when I left my hotel in Tokyo, the doorman came running after me, saying, 'Ms. Chan, it's very cold outside: you need your coat.' Little gestures like that impress me no end."
OCCUPATION Art adviser
HOME BASE New York City
HER STORY Contemporary-art consultant Kim Heirston, 40, spends one week out of every month in Europe, scouring galleries, fairs, and auctions for exciting new work. One of her proudest moments (besides the time she persuaded a client to buy a Damien Hirst formaldehyde sculpture that's now worth 10 times the purchase price) was "discovering" Swiss multimedia artist Ugo Rondinone, in a Zurich gallery several years ago.
HOTEL HIGHS "I'm a Gemini, so I like hotels to have both old-world charm and modern sex appeal. The Berkeley in London has a beautiful, tiny pool and a sexy, fun bar. At the Saxon in Johannesburg, every room opens onto a reflecting pool or a koi pond. And I once spent Christmas at the Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur—the courtyard was strung with lights. "
INTO AFRICA Five years ago, Heirston took a monthlong trip to South Africa, to bear witness to a nation still making the transition from apartheid. "People would come up to me off the street and ask what I thought of their country. They were fascinated with who I might be; they'd say, 'Are you a movie star?' In their minds, I had to be someone special, because they weren't used to seeing a well-dressed, well-appointed black person hanging out with white travel partners."
EXHALE "Whenever I have downtime, I try to take a trip that alters my consciousness. It's cleansing to get into a new culture, and it puts everything else that I do in high relief. India is my absolute, hands-down favorite country. My first time there, I took an intensive group tour of the south: every day for three weeks we just visited Hindu temples, sometimes climbing hundreds of steps to reach them. It was a rigorous trip physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Being there always feels like a life-changing experience."
For more than a century, women have been pioneers in the world of travel. Here, just a few of the accomplishments of female adventurers—and the innovations that have kept their trips stylish and wrinkle-free.
Isabella Bird is one of the first women admitted to the Royal Geographical Society. She traversed the world solo and felt happiest on horseback or in a log cabin, far from city life.
Having won the hearts and appetites of royalty as a master of French cuisine, Rosa Lewis, the daughter of London tradespeople, buys a hotel of her own. The Cavendish, on Jermyn Street, remains in business to this day.
Margaret Mead heads to Samoa to study a little-known tribal group. She had never been on a ship, visited a foreign country, or stayed in a hotel by herself. In Samoa, she will live alone in a hut for almost a year.
The Barbizon Hotel opens in New York, becoming one of the first urban residences to cater to women. Tenants must abide by strict codes of conduct and dress, and no men are allowed above the lobby floor.
Amelia Earhart is the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (flight time: 20 hours and 40 minutes). Four years later, she will make the journey solo, opening the cockpit door for aspiring female pilots.
DuPont begins commercial production of polyester fabric. Wash-and-wear becomes a household phrase and wrinkle-free travel is the name of the game.
After marital tiffs, Lucy and Ethel head to Palm Springs for a holiday sans husbands, where they swoon over Rock Hudson.
The portable blow-dryer is invented. Although a far cry from what's used today, those with wet hair and big rollers rejoice.
Junko Tabei of Japan reaches the top of Mount Everest—the first woman to do so—just 22 years after Sir Edmund Hillary made the climb.
The Go-Go's, an all-female group, release their catchy tune "Vacation"—which becomes the sound track for girls on the go everywhere.
Thelma and Louise, a tale of two feminist road-trippers wreaking havoc on the open highway, debuts in theaters.
In-flight fashion takes off when Kate Spade becomes the first top female designer to create flight attendant uniforms for a major airline—Song, Delta's low-cost carrier.
Need inspiration for your next adventure?Here are nine classic books by intrepid female travelers—all available in road-friendly paperback.
Travels with Myself and Another BY MARTHA GELLHORN
The glamorous war reporter (and former wife of Ernest Hemingway) recalls her adventurous life. (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam)
The Nomad EDITED BY ELIZABETH KERSHAW
The diary of Isabelle Eberhardt, a European who—dressed as a man—traversed Algeria's deserts at the turn of the 20th century. (Interlink Books)
America Day by Day BY SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR
A French existentialist journeys across 1940's America, from New York literary salons to the Grand Canyon. (University of California Press)
A Winter in Arabia BY FREYA STARK
She shocked her fellow Brits by studying Arabic and the Koran, and moving to Baghdad in 1929. This volume records Stark's trip through the country that is now Yemen. (The Overlook Press)
Four Corners BY KIRA SALAK
In 1995, Salak abandoned graduate school (and her boyfriend) for a dangerous odyssey through Papua New Guinea's remotest jungles. A swashbuckling tale. (National Geographic Books)
The Gastronomical Me BY M.F.K. FISHER
These essays—as much about place as they are about food—trace Fisher's evolution from provincial Californian to worldly gourmand in pre-World War II France. (North Point Press)
West with the Night BY BERYL MARKHAM
In this poetic memoir, one of the first female bush pilots recalls the wild expanses of East Africa in the early 20th century. (North Point Press)
Tracks BY ROBYN DAVIDSON
At the age of 27, Davidson trekked across 1,700 miles of Australia's outback with only four camels and a dog. As compulsively readable as it was 20 years ago. (Vintage Departures)
Destinations BY JAN MORRIS
The celebrated Welsh writer tours a Watergate-shocked D.C., an apartheid-stricken Pretoria, and other cities in this collection of Rolling Stone pieces from the 1970's. (Oxford University Press)
"Always bring a flashlight, anti-insect wipes and sprays, but most of all, proper shoes."
Christiane Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent
"Even if you aren't required to abide by local customs, such as wearing a head scarf in Saudi Arabia, it is important to respect the culture. You're an ambassador from your country."
Milbry Polk, author and explorer
"Stay at a hotel that has a key-code system for the elevators, so only guests have access."
Maria Trejo, assistant chef concierge, Ritz-Carlton, New York, Central Park
WHERE TO STAY
Canyon Ranch Tucson
The weeklong Journey Through Midlife program focuses on the physical, emotional, and spiritual changes women face as they age. JOURNEY PROGRAM, DOUBLES FROM $4,670.
8600 E. ROCKCLIFF RD.; 800/742-9000; www.canyonranch.com
Charles Street Inn
DOUBLES FROM $265
94 CHARLES ST., BOSTON; 877/772-8900 OR 617/314-8900; www.charlesstreetinn.com
Golden Door Spa
Founded by a woman in 1958, the Door still caters almost exclusively to women. SINGLES FROM $6,500 FOR SEVEN NIGHTS
800/424-0777 OR 760/744-5777; www.goldendoor.com
DOUBLES FROM $185
1100 14TH ST., DENVER; 888/727-1200 OR 303/228-1100; www.hotelteatro.com
La Costa Resort & Spa
The Girlfriends' Getaway package includes spa services, a half-day poolside cabana rental, fitness classes, and a personalized feng shui consultation. DOUBLES FROM $430
2100 COSTA DEL MAR RD., CARLSBAD, CALIF.; 800/854-5000; www.lacosta.com
This 28-room design hotel in Switzerland offers the standard accoutrements, but goes a step further by reserving one floor for women. DOUBLES FROM $189.
24 MAINAUSTRASSE, ZURICH; 41-1/380-8010; www.ladysfirst.ch
Lake Austin Spa Resort
DOUBLES FROM $460
1705 S. QUINLAN PARK RD., AUSTIN, TEX.; 800/847-5637; www.lakeaustin.com
This funky surf camp in Mexico includes fresh-fish dinners and rustic-chic villas. No men allowed. SIX-NIGHT SURF SAFARI, FROM $1,995
NAYURIT, MEXICO; 707/746-6435; www.surflasolas.com
Miraval, Life in Balance
Mother-daughter trips and sexuality programs for women, such as the upcoming Awakening Aphrodite. DOUBLES FROM $495
5000 E. VIA ESTANCIA MIRAVAL; CATALINA, ARIZ.; 800/232-3969; www.miravalresort.com
DOUBLES FROM $289
90 TREMONT ST., BOSTON; 866/646-3937 OR 617/772-5800; www.ninezero.com
Launching six trips this winter. The company's Web site is indispensable for any female-centric pilgrimage.
The oldest women-only tour company in the United States. Itineraries include trekking, snorkeling, and horse packing, among other wild pursuits designed for active types 30 and over.
These "soft adventure" journeys combine cooking lessons and spa visits with white-water rafting and hiking.
Chicks with Picks
Armed with ice-climbing tools, girls defy gravity at winter clinics in Colorado and New Hampshire.
$775 PER PERSON; 970/626-4424 www.chickswithpicks.com
Gutsy Women Travel
Tour the winelands of Australia on a Gutsy Gourmet vacation or try a Gutsy Milestone trip for your next big birthday.
Feel like mountain biking through Asia and spending the night in yurts?Two-wheel odysseys in Mongolia, along with other locations in Asia, Europe, and North America.
Voyages to out-of-the-way international destinations such as Patagonia, where adventuresses hike, raft, and tour museums and wineries.
Women's Travel Club
The largest club of its kind in the nation, with 25 excursions a year. Groups average between 15 and 20 people, ages 40-65.
In addition to first-person anecdotes, this site lists destination-specific tips, restaurant recommendations, and shopping guides for major cities from Beijing to Stockholm.
Women Welcome Women Worldwide
Solo travelers abroad can lodge free with members of this network, which provides connections in 70 countries and encourages cross-cultural exchanges.
Women Travel Tips
Hints to make any trip safer and more enjoyable. Plus, how to plan your first independent voyage.
U.S. Department of State
Information for single women travelers. (Note: In Laos, don't invite local men into your hotel room—it's illegal!)
By Marybeth Bond (Travelers' Tales). A range of advice and anecdotes, with special sections devoted to business travelers and mother-daughter trips.
A Journey of One's Own
By Thalia Zepatos (The Eighth Mountain Press). This exhaustive guide neglects nothing: it has thoughtful tips, checklists, resources, and is also peppered with essays.
Unsuitable for Ladies
Edited by Jane Robinson (Oxford University Press). Organized by region, these essays by nearly 200 adventurers serve as a geographic primer and refute the idea that a woman's place is in the home.
—Jennifer V. Cole, Amy Farley, and Elizabeth Woodson