Portugal's Silver Coast: The Perfect Women-Only Tour
What Makes a Perfect Women-Only Tour?
by Stephen Hartshorne, GoNOMAD Associate Editor
"Look at me, look at me, look at me now," says The Cat in the Hat. "It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how."
Designing a great tour requires a thorough knowledge of the country you're visiting, its history, its traditions, its way of life, and what it is about it that makes people 'click'.
You have to know where the best historic and cultural sites are, and the most enjoyable activities. And you have to know the best inns and restaurants and how to connect with the locals. A truly great tour requires flexibility and there has to be a balance of scheduled activities and down time. And you have to know the tastes and preferences of your clientele. But above all you need to know how to have fun, and as the Cat in the Hat points out, that takes an expert.
Ins and Outs
To learn some of the ins and outs of tour design, GoNOMAD spoke with one of the acknowleged masters of the art, Yolanta Barnes of Sights and Soul Travel.
Barnes has been designing and conducting women-only tours in Europe for the last four years, and the women who have toured with her speak with unbridled enthusiasm about her thoroughness in planning, her knowledge of the countries she visits, and her passion for travel. Many of Barnes' clients have taken two or three S&S tours and have formed close friendships with fellow travelers from all over the world. They stay in touch after the tours and come back again and again, bringing their mothers, sisters, cousins and friends. To appreciate the degree of planning Barnes puts into her tours, one has only to look at her website, which includes a virtual encyclopedia of information about the history and culture of the destination countries.
A Lighthearted Approach
One of her newest tours is Lisbon and the Silver Coast in Portugal, one of her favorite countries.
"The overall theme of the tour is gaining an insight into Portuguese history, culture and nature," she says.
"Getting to know Portugal is approached light-heartedly, hands-on, from many angles: having lunch in Queluz Palace’s baroque kitchen, sampling wines from vineyards started by the Romans, exploring Moorish fortifications, figuring out the secret Knights Templar rituals or even flirting with a good-looking fado singer."
Barnes says the tour includes some 'serious' sightseeing, but many other activities as well, so travelers can experience the country through taste, feel, smell and touch.
"It is not all about following the guide, listening, and looking at the twentieth castle," she says. "The more different elements, the better."
A Temporary Local
Barnes says an important part of Sights and Souls tours is accommodations and dining. They avoid large hotels with busloads of tourists in favor of "intimate boutique hotels" with ambience and character.
"The food and lodging were just unbelievable," says Jackee Swartz of Pennsylvania, who took the Silver Coast tour. "At Obidos we stayed at the queen's castle. It just had enough rooms for the people on the tour, so we occcupied the entire castle."
During each ten-day tour, S&S travelers stay at only two hotels, eliminating the need to pack and unpack. Barnes says staying in a town for four or five days makes visitors feel more familiar with the community.
"It feels good when the owner of a small grocery store recognizes you and smiles at you," she says.
The castle at Obidos has ten rooms, with balconies or terraces (one is a tower) overlooking the red roofs and white walls of the town. Barnes says she picked Obidos because it is "a perfect gem of a town less than two hours north of Lisbon."
"It is surrounded by Moorish walls, has its own forbidding castle and whitewashed houses covered in flowering vines and other blooms that make you feel like you have walked into a watercolor painting."
The hotel has a famous restaurant that draws diners from miles around. As with all S&S tours, you can order whatever you want from the menu, up to a certain limit, and then if you want a special bottle of wine, you can pay for it. And spa treatments are included in some of the tours as well.
"Getting spoiled is definitely part of the Sights and Soul experience," Barnes says.
Other elements of the Lisbon/Silver Coast tour are painting ceramic tiles according to Moorish patterns, dining at a cliffside restaurant at the westernmost point in continental Europe, a garden tour of Sintra, where the English Romantics once waxed poetic, wine tours, architecture tours, a visit to the basilica at Fatima, the Manueline architecture, the legendary beaches...
And then, of course, there's the seafood...
The Secret Ingredient
Barnes says sightseeing, activities, dining and accomodations are all important elements in a successful tour, but she says the secret ingredient is the company of likeminded travelers.
"By designing the tour and working out the details, we lay the foundation for a successful tour, but what makes it memorable are the women who join us for the adventure."
Barbara Sprouls of South Carolina, who took the S&S Silver Coast tour, says she noticed Barnes took the time to find out about her well before the trip began -- what her interests were, how fit she was, whether she liked to read.
"Yolanta does a great deal of research designing the tours. She puts together a syllabus before you go on the trip," she says.
Sprouls says Barnes put her in touch with her fellow travelers by email so they could become acquainted before the trip. "We discussed the history of Portugal and its impact on the world," she says. "It makes for a very compatible group, people who want to learn more than what's in the guidebooks -- the culture, the food, the economy, how people live today. That makes for a very interesting trip."
"Our group was extremely compatible. We wrote daily haiku and read them on the bus."
Jackee Swartz says she was impressed with the degree to which Barnes personalized the tour for every individual traveler. "We had someone with us who was very religious and Yolanta made sure she could go to [the shrine at] Fatima and attend a mass. It was leisure time for some people, but for that person it was extemely emotional and meaningful."
"Some women have traveled with us two or three times," Barnes says, "and many bring friends or family -- sisters, mothers, cousins -- for the second, third or fourth trip with us, so it all starts feeling like a family."
She says the Sights and Souls clientele is becoming more international. While it used to be almost all Canadians and Americans, the company now attracts women from Australia, England, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Hong Kong.
"I am very happy about it," Barnes says. "It makes the experience all the more richer for everyone traveling with us. You make friends with women from all over the world."
"Most of the women who have traveled together stay in touch after the tour, as well. They exchange photos from the trip and plan which trip to take next. Next time when they want to travel to a particular destination, they call each other and see who can go. So, as I said, it starts to feel like a big family, and I personally find it quite rewarding."
Some women who have traveled with Sights and Soul want to return with the whole family, and Barnes is able to design custom tours for them.
Barnes says one of the most fulfilling parts of conducting tours is providing mothers and daughters with the opportunity to get to know one another better through travel, as she did with her daughters Emily and Sara.
"Being in different surroundings made me see my daughters in completely new light," she writes on her website. "I didn't know how amazed I would be and how proud, when I saw aspects of them that experiencing a different culture reveals. This was when I knew for sure that I needed to make this experience available to more women."
Mother-daughter tours are a key element in the meteoric increase in women-only tours in recent years. Some women are taking their teenage daughters, others are taking their 70-year-old mothers. Barnes says traveling together allows them to get beyond their roles in the family and discover a whole new person.
"To learn about our mother's or our daughter's inner life, we need many opportunities to talk. Being away from the everyday reality and the endless chores provides time and space where we can really express ourselves.
"We do not talk about dishes that need to be cleaned or a boss that needs to be dealt with, we talk about what this landscape makes us think about, we talk about what touches us within a work of art, or we talk about memories that this dish brings back.
"Quite often the journeys that we take are to the center of ourselves and to the center of our relationship and the memories we create are cherished for the rest of our life."
As Sights and Souls has become more and more successful, Barnes says one of the most important challenges has been finding other tour leaders who can bring the same level of commitment and passion to the job. She would like to conduct all the tours herself, but that has become impossible, so she finds women who were born and raised in destination countries who now live in the US.
"They are really interested in making women on the tour fall in love in their native country and they are passionate about the destinations where they travel."
Now that her business is a big success, we asked, is it still fun?
"When I accompany the group, I enjoy it as much as everyone else," she says. "I have been very lucky, I guess. So far all my groups have been really good and I have made many, many friends.
"I have enjoyed much laughter, much wonderment and at times I was moved to tears along with other travelers in my groups, and you know that nothing makes you closer to another human than traveling together.
"There is also satisfaction in sharing all the marvels out there, natural and man-made, and satisfaction in seeing people as they gain understanding that we are all the same. Despite politics, religions, and governments, people are just people, whether they speak English, Turkish, Portuguese or Russian, and nothing makes you realize it as much as travel does. "So yes, I am having fun."