Finding Freedom and Forming Friendships
by Stephen Hartshorne
While some people take a vacation just to relax, for others travel is a process of exploration and discovery -- an opportunity to lose one's self in another culture and then to find one's self again, renewed, grounded, wiser and more worldly. Many women are finding they can best do this in the company of other women.
By far the fastest growing segment of the travel industry in recent years has been the proliferation of companies offering women-only tours, and the women who take these tours almost invariably mention the opportunity to connect with other women and the freedom to do exactly what they want.
"Men and women travel very differently," says Yolanta Barnes of Sights and Soul Travels, a four-year-old company offering European tours for women.
"While men tend to be very goal-oriented and like to accomplish as much as possible on their vacation, women enjoy the more relaxed pace and combining seeing sights with immersing themselves in various aspects of the culture: shopping the local markets, speaking with local children and paying attention to the color of the local stone and the local flowers."
"So when you go by yourself or when you go with a women-only tour, you get to decide if you want to walk out of the science museum or have chocolate for lunch or try on hair accessories for two hours without explaining to anyone."
"Men should not be threatened by this," she adds, "because they've been going off with their friends to hunt and to fish for centuries."
"Some of us don't like to travel solo," Barnes says, "and we don't like to go on tours where the other people are mostly couples and the activities are all geared toward couples, and we don't want to go on singles tours because we are not necessarily looking for a mate."
That's why Barnes, who had a successful career in real estate, decided to found her tour company. "I had been traveling myself for many, many years and finally, when the time was right, I decided to put my resources and my passion together and start a company that would allow other women to experience the sheer magic of travel."
"Because, you know, it is magic," she says. "I get goosebumps thinking about all the women who have been able to experience it on our tours. It's all about friendship and connecting. It’s not a competition to see more. It’s about learning to understand the world and having a great time while doing it. Imagine a pajama party, but we are grown-up."
There are many reasons why women are using tour companies like Sights and Soul. They may have a spouse who doesn't like to travel, they may be widowed or divorced, or they might find that most of their hometown friends are not able to travel for one reason or another.
JoAnn Hassler, who traveled to Poland with Barnes, says that often men don't want to visit other countries. "They might want to get in the car and drive to Wyoming, but they're not interested in international travel," she says.
Another phenomenon of this growing market is a rapid increase in mother-daughter tours; some women are taking their teenage daughters and some are taking their 70-year-old mothers. Travel, Barnes says, allows mothers and daughters to get beyond their roles in the family and discover "a whole new person."
On a women-only tour, single travelers can share a room and avoid paying the dreaded “single supplement” – anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of the cost of double-occupancy. They also save a great deal of time by letting someone with a lot more experience make all the travel arrangements.
Lori Catron, who also went to Poland with Sights and Soul, and who has also traveled solo, says, "It's a lot easier and less stressful to have everything planned for you." She said her S&S tour included many unique experiences like carriage rides and a visit to a salt mine -- "the kinds of things you just can't do on your own."
Women who have taken tours with Barnes say she does a tremendous amount of advance planning, which really pays off once the trip gets underway, and they also say she has a real knack for picking the best restaurants, but above all they stress her passion for travel and her desire to share it with others.
"She was so exuberant that it was really catching," says Linda Milburn, another Sights and Soul alumna.
Both Hassler and Milburn, by the way, have signed up for a second tour with Barnes in Croatia. Catron also says she's planning another S&S tour.
If you Google "women-only travel" you will see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of travel offerings. Women can take a gourmet tour of Italy or make a pilgrimage to sacred sites in Britain or go kayaking above the Arctic Circle. Some of these tours are operated by and for women, while others are capitalizing on a hot new market.
There are some options that emphasize adventure, some that emphasize culture, and some that emphasize luxury. Sights and Soul Travel combines all three.
Barnes is a native of Poland and has been traveling in Europe for many years, so she has been able to gather a wealth of knowledge about local history and culture in the countries she visits (Portugal, Poland, Croatia, Hungary, England and the Czech Republic), and prospective travelers can bone up in advance on language, history and practical information at the Sights and Soul website.
Besides history and culture (art galleries, castles, piano recitals, cooking classes and in-depth sightseeing), Barnes also incorporates "soft" adventure like walks on the beach, hikes in the forest, rafting or sea kayaking as well as a visit to a spa where women can be pampered with massage, yoga, saunas and beauty treatments.
JoAnn Hassler fondly remembers the four-handed massage she received at a spa in Poland. She enjoyed it so much she went back for another one. She says Barnes' tours are not too heavily scheduled, so there is plenty of flexibility, and even time to be alone. The pace is relaxed: no 7 a.m. departures.
Tour groups are small: from six to sixteen people, usually twelve or thirteen, and for groups of six or more Barrnes will design a customized tour.
She suggests that people visiting Europe for the first time start with one of the "classic" tours in London or Prague before touring more "avant-garde" destinations such as Poland, Portugal, Hungary or Croatia.
Her personal favorite is Portugal. "Portugal has the warmest locals," she says. "The people are just fantastic. The architecture is stunning, the coastline is dramatic, the history of the place transports you to another realm and of course the food and wine are incomparable. "