The Future of Women Travel: More Adventure, Less Shopping
by Isadora Dunne
Beyond providing an escape from our everyday routine, travel enables us to understand ourselves and the world around us in a new way. Through bonds made both with locals in places we visit and with travelers sharing the experience, we realize a side of ourselves that we never knew before. More and more, women are finding that these journeys of discovery are best made with other women. There exists a strong communal feeling among participants in women-only travel, and a sense of freedom that is hard to come by when traveling with the entire family. Once a small niche in the travel market, women's travel has become increasingly mainstream. To hear about what's in store for the future of this popular way to travel, GoNOMAD spoke with Yolanta Barnes of Sights and Soul Travels, who has been a pioneer for women-only travel since the inception of her tour company in 2004.
Experiencing the Unknown
"After many years of organizing women travel," says Barnes, "One of the things I notice is that very few people are surprised by the idea of women traveling by themselves, and the women are more adventurous than ever. "Girlfriends’ getaways are no longer synonymous with a spa or shopping weekend." Instead, says Barnes, women are setting their sights on more remote destinations: "It could be an African safari, trekking in the Himalayas or the Amazon expedition," a new trip that kicked off the year for Sights and Soul to tremendous success. "Even though women want to relax on our vacation, and spa and massage experiences are always very popular, we also want to hike, raft, dog sled, bike and explore the wilderness." Further, women are looking to get involved with local culture in a truly hands-on way. Sights and Soul trips enable participants to do just that: cooking in Tuscany, fishing in the Amazon, silk spinning in Croatia, designing their personal perfume in France, and landscape drawing in Greece are just a sampling of possible experiences that Barnes lists.
A Trip of One's Own
One thing seems certain when discussing women's travel: it’s here to stay. Says Barnes: "I think in the coming years more and more women will be traveling with their friends, mothers, sisters, daughters. Women consider travel as necessary to recharge their mind, their creativity, their energy and their bodies so they can go on taking care of their homes, their careers and their families." Women-only travel is essential to this process of rejuvenation. It provides a woman with time that is truly her own, a commodity that is often hard to come by if she has a high profile career or is busy being Mom. As Barnes says: "Let’s face it: when you take your husband and your kids with you on a trip, you’re not really on vacation; you’re just taking the show on the road." Women-only time is restorative for all women, not just mothers. Marcia Joswick of California, who has been on several Sights and Soul trips to Europe and most recently to the Amazon, explains: "I think women are very different when they are together without men. "The attention is more on ourselves than on the men, and we are free to just let go and have fun, rather than doing all the things we do to seek and hold the attention of men."
Looking Towards the Future
Today affordability is on everyone’s mind, and Yolanta Barnes is meeting this challenge by experimenting with "a la carte" tours this year for the first time. "In March, we’ll be going to Spain, and even though the accommodations, activities and other tour components are very high quality, the price is extremely low, because you don’t pay for all the activities, but choose only the ones which you want to include. "As a result, you can spend eight days in Andalucia, Spain for under $900," she explains. The current financial turmoil in Europe just may have a silver lining, Barnes says: "With the dollar on the rise, Europe is affordable again and many women want to visit or revisit the classic destinations like England, France, Italy and Spain.
"We also plan to include more non-European destinations like South Africa, New Zealand and South-East Asia." In addition to tried-and-true trips to places like France and Greece, Sights and Soul has included the Amazon and Nova Scotia as new destinations for 2009. "Both appeal to women who want to get away from it all and are more interested in exploring the natural wonders than the cultural treasures," Barnes says. The two new tours are proving to be "very popular," especially with past Sights and Soul participants "who are ready for the next step." The Nova Scotia tour is scheduled for this August, and if Barnes’ recent Amazon trip is any indication, it should be a big success.
The Amazon Princesses of the Tucano
"When I told people I was going to the Amazon, their jaws dropped," says Joswick. "I think this is because we tend to think of it as a dangerous, difficult and uncomfortable place: heat, bugs, snakes, wild animals, piranhas, you name it. "But going the way we did, on a comfortable boat, with excellent guides, I never felt I was in danger. The heat was bearable, and I never even saw a mosquito!" In the past most Sights and Soul tour destinations have been in Europe, with a focus on cultural landmarks.
For the Amazon tour, Barnes had to switch gears: "We replaced cathedrals, art, gourmet restaurants and spas with the stillness of the Rio Negro, the floating meadows of the Amazon, the monkeys, cayman and sloths. "Instead of a boutique hotel or a villa, we were staying on a motor yacht." The change was welcome to Yolanta Barnes and her clients. The boat was called the Tucano and was manned by a crew of eight, exclusively for the 14 Sights and Soul travelers, making it a very private tour. The small vessel was furnished in the style of 19th-century steamers with dark wood paneling and antique botanical prints, but provided modern comfort.
Sharlene Barrier of Texas, who participated in the Amazon adventure, says, "There was ample space for comraderie or solitude and all the ‘Amazon Princesses,’ as we began calling ourselves early on in the trip, seemed to be at ease. "That was the wonderful thing about being on the boat; you felt so comfortable, as if traveling in your own home… And best of all, you felt part of the environment, even when asleep!" "Constantly being able to observe the changing landscape from the boat was really important to me," says Heather Dail of North Carolina, who has traveled with Sights and Soul several times. "Being on the water, you got to see passing boats and go by houses and communities and farms and see a bit of what life on the river is like… I think a boat is absolutely the only way to experience the Amazon, and we had a particularly comfortable one with a fantastic crew."
A Low-Impact Expedition
Beyond inviting accommodations, Barnes emphasizes how important it is to respect the Amazon rainforest while exploring its natural beauty. The cruise is a low-impact, green expedition that brings capital to the local population and does not injure or destroy plants or animals.
With local guides and exploration of the lesser-traveled Rio Negro, this trip is as authentic as it gets. Explains Barnes: "Most tours to the Amazon go to Peru and explore the upper Amazon River… which is navigated by many, many boats.
"We spent the last two days of our journey on the Amazon, but the first five days and the main portion of the expedition was on the Rio Negro, in a very remote, rarely visited region which feels like a different universe."
To ensure the women of the Tucano get a deep insight into the rainforest cultures, native guides told legends and stories and shared information about regional fruits and plants, as well as local traditions and customs of the river people.
Says Sharlene Barrier: "Our fabulous guides, one a native Indian who had grown up on the river, were constantly educating us… Our meals every day were a cultural, culinary experience -- have you ever eaten avocado mousse or scrambled eggs with raisins?"
Adds Heather Dail: "Most of the Sights and Souls tours involve lots of museums and performances and historic sites, but this was a very different kind of cultural submersion."
What Women Want
Above all, Sights and Soul trips are about freedom; time to do exactly what you want, with no obligations to anyone but yourself. Though days on the Amazon begin at daybreak with an early morning expedition -- one time including piranha fishing -- and activities are planned throughout the day, there is always time to relax.
"The days were planned for us with new sights, sounds, animals and people to enjoy. You never had to waste a moment thinking what to do, although you were always free to stay on board and do nothing at all," explains Barrier.
Exploring the Amazon in the company of a group of like-minded, adventurous women means never having to put up one’s guard. Says Barrier: "It was great being able to go without makeup and still feel wonderful, and to hang your clothes (including undergarments) on the top deck clothesline to dry in the lovely breeze. Talk about letting it all hang out!"
It goes without saying that the right destination, small groups, a quality, well-researched itinerary and authentic experiences are imperative to a successful women's tour.
Beyond that, says Barnes, "What really makes the experience stand out are our travelers: they are adventurous, sophisticated women, active, curious about the world and lots of fun. They are people whom you want to share your adventures with year after year."