Where the girls are

At vacation spots everywhere, women are on the lookout for fun. Here's how to plan a getaway.

Girlfriends in Cedarburg.
During the annual Strawberry Festival in Cedarburg, Wis., a trio of friends take a break for strawberry wine.

Everywhere I go, I see groups of women out having fun. Women on bikes. Women on skis. Women shopping, sightseeing and sampling.

Often, they're wearing the tell-tale colors of the Red Hat Society, a loose-knit organization of older women whose mission is to have fun.

One June, I spotted three of them at Strawberry Festival in Cedarburg, Wis., having some laughs over a bottle of strawberry wine. They'd driven up from the southern Wisconsin town of Orfordville for the day, one of many trips they take throughout the year.

"We're taking them all the time," says Lin Newman, who founded one of five Red Hat chapters in her town of 1,200. "We get a chance to giggle. There's just a sense of freedom. We can let our hair down. It's an opportunity to be wacky. There are no rules."

They go to nearby Fort Atkinson for a dinner-theater production of "Fiddler on the Roof" and a fashion show. They go to Mackinac Island for the scenery and fudge.

In summer, they'll have pajama parties at Newman's cottage in Lake Geneva, then hop the train to Chicago for the museums and shopping. (For ideas, see 12 months of girlfriend getaways and 50 great girlfriend getaways.)

So what does her husband do?

"He likes to go to car shows," Newman said.

These days, trips for women are big business. Budget Travel magazine devotes special issues just to them, noting that "we can't leave our offices outside Times Square without running into a group of women giggling their way down Seventh Avenue."

National Geographic has published "50 Best Girlfriends Getaways in North America," explaining that trips by women, including mothers, daughters and sisters, "have become a driving force in the travel industry."

Oprah Winfrey and her best friend, Gayle King, took 50 readers of O magazine to Miraval Resort in Arizona for a week. Women can book a trip with Adventures in Good Company, Women Traveling Together, AdventureWomen, Adventurous Wench, Gutsy Women Travel or the Women's Travel Club.

Hotels and inns have jumped on the bandwagon, too. In big cities, they may include such features as martinis, trips to male strip clubs and "lingerie makeovers," but in the Upper Midwest, packages are more likely to include yoga, scrapbooking and wine tasting.

Stone Arch Festival in Minneapolis.
Shoppers stroll through the Stone Arch Festival of Arts in Minneapolis.

But women do a lot more than gab and gossip over bonbons and chardonnay.

Sher Lawrence of Chetek, Wis., has traveled with her five sisters-in-law every year for more than two decades, always renting lodges or cabins in such places as Door County, Galena and the Cable area. They shop, cook, do art projects, golf, visit state parks and see what else there is to do.

"We like to do new things and try new places," she says. "It's our time to get together and reconnect, to keep the bond really strong between us. We've turned on two or three other groups to this, too; they think it's awesome."

They invited their husbands on the 20th trip, but Lawrence says they'll never do that again.

"They wanted to have a schedule, and they were so concerned about meals," she said. "We tend to fly by the seat of our pants a little more."

When Judith Niemi of St. Paul founded Woodswomen in 1977, she was in the vanguard of two trends: adventure travel and travel for women. In those early days, she says, women rarely were seen in the wilderness without men.

"We'd be canoeing in the Boundary Waters and a man would say, 'My God, are you out here all alone?' and he'd be talking to 12 people," she said. "Now, it's perfectly ordinary."

These days, she often goes on jaunts with a loose group of friends who call themselves the Sturdy Girls: "Typically, someone will say, 'Time for a Sturdy Girls float,'" she says. "We'll go to the St. Croix, float through the backwaters and go bird-watching for a day."

It's no mystery why girlfriend getaways have become so popular, Niemi says.

"Women love traveling with other women because it's so much fun," she says. "It's entirely, tremendously fun."

Trip Tips: Planning a girlfriend getaway

Getting started: First, assess budgets. You can save a lot of money by traveling weekdays, in the off-season or in less-touristy spots. Then find out what the group wants to do-mostly sit around and talk, for example, or get out and about.

Finding accommodations: Ask who minds sharing beds and who doesn't. B&Bs may seem like a good choice, but few have rooms with more than one bed, and they don't always have good gathering spaces. Small inns often work better, and some offer special women's getaways in their off seasons.

A ski class in Eagle River.
An instructor leads drills during a Women's Learn to Ski Weekend at Trees for Tomorrow in Wisconsin.

A condo or lodge may be most practical, since they have kitchens and living rooms. Sher Lawrence of Chetek, Wis., says she's had good luck using Vacation Rentals by Owner. Another good site is HomeAway.

Tourist web sites also list vacation homes; look for "vacation rentals." Or use a search engine, typing in the name of the area in which you're interested with "vacation rental condos" or "cottages."

For more, see Renting a vacation house and A cottage of one's own.

State parks and non-profit clubs often rent lodges that are perfect for groups and also inexpensive (see Cabins for a crowd ).

In Minnesota, St. Croix State Park near Hinckley rents two guesthouses, one with eight bedrooms and 14 beds and the other with six bedrooms and 10 beds, $180.

Decor is modest, but both have very well-equipped kitchens. Along with other guesthouses and cabins, they can be reserved up to a year in advance. For more, see Lodgings in Minnesota state parks.

Packages: For lower-cost weekends, look to non-profits, such as Minnesota's environmental learning centers. From Minneapolis, Wilderness Inquiry offers women's trips on the Superior Hiking Trail, kayaking in the Apostles and canoeing in the BWCAW.

Destinations: On Lake Michigan, Door County is a very popular destination and the only Upper Midwest destination listed in "50 Best Girlfriends Getaways" (National Geographic, $15.95) by Marybeth Bond, who lists it in her "Retail Therapy" section.

It's popular with Chicagoans and best known for its city-style attractions-shopping, theater, art, fine dining-but it also offers wonderful bicycling, kayaking, wildflower-hunting, bird-watching, hiking and swimming.

It has lots of condos, cottages and other lodgings. For more, see Door County stories.

In northwest Illinois, Galena is a classic girlfriend getaway, and the tourism folks say half its 50 B&Bs have rooms with more than one bed.

There are lots of shops, restaurants and renovated historic houses to tour, and many events geared toward women-wine tastings, craft demonstrations, cooking classes, walking tours, art shows. For more, see Galena getaway.

Not far away in southwest Wisconsin, Mineral Point has plenty of galleries and shops, but it's less commercial and more personable.

The National Trust named Mineral Point one of its 2007 Dozen Distinctive Destinations, calling it an "architectural treasure trove" and citing the "abundant beauty of its pastoral setting."

Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts offers workshops year-round (see Slinging cement in Mineral Point ), and the Pendarvis historic site showcases the town's Cornish heritage.

For more, see Beauty in Mineral Point. For more on Mineral Point's Fall Art Tour and other fall studio tours, see Autumn in the studios.

Eight friends can rent the entire Mineral Point Hotel, which has two rooms with two queen beds and two with kings, for $400, including a continental breakfast. Down the street, the Brewery Creek Inn includes three rooms with sleeper sofas, and there's a pleasant pub and restaurant.

Judy Sutcliffe helps students at Shake Rag Alley.
In Mineral Point, women work on sculptures during Shake Rag Alley's Mosaic Madness weekend.

On 26 acres outside Mineral Point, the three-bedroom Maple Wood Lodge is very handsome and comfortable for a small group. Reserve far in advance for the big October Fall Art Tour.

Duluth has plenty of shopping and several spas, but it's best known for outdoor activities-hiking, bird-watching, boat-watching.

Near downtown, the charming Hillside Cottage has a view of the harbor and makes a perfect place for a girlfriends' getaway, with three bedrooms, five beds, three baths and a kitchen. On Park Point, the Cottage on the Point has three bedrooms, one with twin beds. For more, see Duluth stories.

In northern Wisconsin, Bayfield also has a nice mixture of shopping and outdoorsy activities. From the picturesque hillside village on Lake Superior, guests can hike, bike, sail, or take a cruise boat to the Apostle Islands or a ferry to Madeline Island, where Big Bay State Park has lovely beaches.

There are many condos, cottages and houses for rent both in Bayfield and Madeline Island. For more, see Beloved Bayfield and Madeline's magnetism.

In southeast Minnesota, Lanesboro is a bicycling hub that also is known for its canoeing, tubing, theater and Amish tours. For more, see The belle of bluff country and Bicycling in bluff country.

Half an hour north of Milwaukee, Cedarburg is a beautifully preserved Yankee mill town that has many small, unique shops and also is a stop on the Ozaukee Interurban Trail; the stretch from Cedarburg to Port Washington, on Lake Michigan, is one of the prettiest.

Cedarburg's 1886 Washington House Inn B&B has 34 rooms, many of which have two beds, sofa sleepers or kings. For more on the town and festivals, see Jolly Cedarburg.

Chicago is perhaps the ultimate girlfriend getaway; it has the region's best shopping, museums, restaurants, festivals, music-you name it.

Accommodations are pricey in summer (though budget travelers can stay at Hostelling International's popular and well-located Chicago hostel ) so consider other seasons; it's an exciting place to be year-round. For more, see Chicago stories.

Red Hat Society: This national organization for women 50 and older "began as a result of a few women deciding to greet middle age with verve, humor and elan," writes founder Sue Ellen Cooper.

"We believe silliness is the comedy relief of life, and since we are all in it together, we might as well join red-gloved hands and go for the gusto together. Underneath the frivolity, we share a bond of affection, forged by common life experiences and a genuine enthusiasm for wherever life takes us next."

Last updated on May 2, 2012

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