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IN THE COMPANY OF WOMEN
THERE'S EXUBERANCE AND JOY WITHOUT MEN IN THEIR MIDST

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 signed up several years ago 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 the 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 that I doubt would have evolved so strongly from a coed 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 song 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 guy-less 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 never left home alone before, but always traveled with their husbands and kids," said 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 zeroes 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 some 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 coed 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 like 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, Md., said she sometimes gets calls from irate men and women who object to her single-sex programs.

"The guys accuse me of being sexist in excluding them from my trips, and the women think I'm suggesting females are somehow dumber than men and need special handling, but none of that's the point," she said.

"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," said Pogel, whose company offers live-aboard learning cruises out of its Annapolis base as well as marinas in Florida, the British Virgin Islands and the Great Lakes.

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 said. "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.

For women new to adventure travel, Eckert offers plenty of easier programs.

"Many beginners want an adventure experience without physical encumbrances that may be just too much for them, especially if they are not particularly fit," she said. "For them we have trips where, wherever we go, camels, llamas or Sherpas carry the gear."

Whether canoeing on Utah's Green River, horse packing in the Canadian Rockies or hiking northern Italy's Lake District, "the emphasis is on the beauty of the environment, not the stamina of the participant," Eckert said.

Stamina-building is an integral part of the women's trips run by the Sierra Club and Outward Bound -- particularly the latter, whose name is synonymous with rough and tough wilderness challenges.

At 53 years old, Outward Bound, based in Garrison, across the Hudson from West Point, has grown mellower and more tolerant with age, no longer espousing a strictly survival-school stance. While the courses are physically demanding, individuals are encouraged to go at their own pace, competing with no one but themselves.

Every program, from alpine mountaineering to dog-sledding, canyon trekking and white-water canoeing, is offered several times a year as an all-women trip to make the experience even more user-friendly for neophytes.

Carol Hake, a 66-year-old Sierra Club hike leader, has spent 11 summers teaching women from 17 to 74 how to tote a 35-pound backpack cross-country without hurting backs or necks.

"We go short distances, just three to four miles a day the first couple of days, and the women learn that by correctly packing and carrying well-designed packs, they don't ever have to be in pain," said Hake, whose weeklong trips are in the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, south of Yosemite National Park.

Though she said no one has ever turned back on one of her trips, she has had a few cases where women divested themselves of their packs.

"One year we had a woman who was very unfit," Hake re-called. "She was just a kid, 52, but her legs were weak, and it was hard for her to keep up. We divvied up her gear, and she concentrated on building up the strength in her legs. The trip went fine."

Hake said her biggest thrill is watching her charges gain confidence in their own strength and endurance abilities:

"I remember one of my most self-doubting group members saying suddenly during a steep ascent up a mountain pass, 'I'm beginning to trust my boots,' and another one shouting, 'I'm beginning to trust myself.' I just beamed with joy.

"There's a very special empathy among women that could not be experienced if men were in their midst."

Travel information

A selection of outfitters with trips for women only:

Outdoor Vacations for Women Over 40, Box 200, Groton, Mass 01450; (508) 448-3331. Trips include hiking in the Canadian Rockies or Copper Canyon, Mexico.

Outward Bound, Route 9D, R2 Box 280, Garrison, N.Y., 10524; (800) 243-8520. Alpine mountaineering in the High Sierras, Calif., desert and canyon explorations in Joshua Tree National Monument, Calif.; white-water rafting in Utah.

Rainbow Adventures, 15033 Kelly Canyon Road, Bozeman, Mont. 59715; (800) 804-8686. Hiking in the Grand Canyon, float trip in the Yukon, African safaris to Tanzania and Uganda.

Sierra Club, 85 Second St., San Francisco, Calif. 94105; (415) 977-5522. The club runs a number of hiking and backpacking trips for women only each season. One or two usually are for beginners.

Wild Women Adventures, 107 N. Main St., Sebastopol, Calif. 95472; (800) 992-1322. Domestic and international tours for small groups of women, with an emphasis on cultural immersion.

Womanship, The Boathouse, 410 Severn Ave., Annapolis, Md. 21404; (800) 342-9295. Weeklong learning cruises in the British Virgin Islands and Florida's Gulf Coast, live-aboard courses in Annapolis, Md., and the Great Lakes in season.

Women for Sail, 1035 W. Belden Ave., Suite 3, Chicago, Ill. 60614; (800) 346-6404. Learn-to-sail courses operate in Florida year-round, and run seasonally in Maryland, Michigan, the British Virgin Islands and Thailand.

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