Karen Rotella was in a funk. So she headed west--with a bunch of women. "I needed to recharge, to get close to nature," says the 41-year-old health inspector from Middlebury, Conn. Rather than travel alone (her husband is not the outdoorsy type), Rotella joined a women-only travel group to ski in Yellowstone National Park. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of her life.
"It's more relaxing with just women," she says. For seven days, Rotella and four other travelers skied, spotted elk, and chatted about their work, their travels, and their families. "In such a short time, we really bonded."
Whether you're a Southern Baptist or an African American, a volunteer or a senior citizen, you can find an "affinity" group with whom to travel. These aren't simply arts-and-crafts workshops or another European museum tour for folks who like Toulouse-Lautrec. Instead, you hook up with travelers who share something deeper: the same religion, race, gender, or lifestyle.
The types of trips available are as varied as the affinity groups who take them. Like Rotella, a rugged woman can ski, climb mountains, or shoot the rapids on a Woodswomen (800 279-0555) adventure trip. Wild Women Adventures (800 992-1322) steers females toward more civilized destinations, such as London, dubbed "Ye Olde `Shoppe 'til you Droppe' Thames Cruise." (The group's idea of roughing it is staying in a hotel without room service.)
Men-only excursions, on the other hand, are harder to find. Most tour operators run trips that welcome both sexes. But there are lots of vacations that draw mostly fellows--even if they don't target them directly. Esoteric Sports Tours (800 321-8008) puts together four-day weekends that revolve around the Super Bowl, the Masters golf tournament, and other sporting events attended mostly by men. At Leon Harrel's Old West Adventure (800 362-7095), the chaps, much like Billy Crystal in the movie City Slickers, play cowboy on a three-day cattle drive. Many Alaska fishing trips, as well as hang-gliding and bungee-jumping adventures, interest men primarily. Males in need of soul-searching can consider a men's awareness weekend. Christian-based Promise Keepers (800 265-6023) offers two days of prayer, song, and general male bonding at football stadiums around the country.
If you're over age 50, Elderhostel (617 426-7788) sponsors enrichment classes--History of the American West, History of Whaling--and field trips at some 2,000 colleges and state parks. A typical domestic trip, which runs for one week, costs $340 (excluding transportation). Active seniors can trek through Ireland, Scotland, and Hawaii with Walking the World (800 340-9255), which organizes year-round, off-the-beaten-path tours for small groups.
Church and synagogue members have long made pilgrimages together to the Holy Land, of course. But most religious groups now have other travel options. Templeton Tours (800 334-2630) offers Bible-study cruises to the Bahamas and Alaska, featuring popular Christian preachers. Catholics can retrace the steps of St. Francis of Assisi through one of the customized trips run by Regina Tours (800 228-4654). And Jews can enjoy a Kosher week at a Club Med resort--complete with rabbi and makeshift synagogue.
Twice a year, Club Med also hosts an alcohol-free week for vacationers who are on the wagon. In addition to the typical Club Med sports activities, travelers can attend AA-style meetings. These packages are run by Sober Vacations (800 762-3738), which also puts together cruises, as well as a rafting trip for more adventurous abstainers.
Indeed, whatever your affinity, you'll find a surprising assortment of travel offerings to suit your needs. Blind, deaf, and wheelchair-bound individuals can travel to Australia, Israel, and other destinations with Travel Turtle Tours (800 453-9195). A 13-day trip to Holland, which costs $2,350, includes five days aboard a Clipper ship. Bare Necessities Tour & Travel (800 743-0405) charters cruises for nudists. Its 1,200 passenger, seven-day, Millennium cruise to the Caribbean, which costs up to $2,200, is already 50% booked. And African Americans interested in learning about their heritage can, say, retrace the steps of the Underground Railroad.
To find the group that best suits your needs, check out the Specialty Travel Index ($10 for two biannual issues, 415 455-1643; or visit their Web site, www.specialtytravel.com), which lists everything from brown-bear watching and ice-climbing adventures to wine-tasting tours and shopping expeditions. The American Society of Travel Agents (703 739-2782) offers a list of travel agents who specialize in singles, religious, and assorted other affinity groups at its Web site (www.astanet.com).
Affinity travel is not for everybody, of course. No matter how like-minded you may be, group travel can be difficult. Just because you're with a bunch of fellow vegetarians is no guarantee that you'll all get along. But it helps. "You feel you have something in common from the start," says Ann H. Waigand, publisher of The Educated Traveler newsletter ($57 for six bimonthly issues plus annual directories covering special-interest travel and museum-sponsored tours, 800 648-5168). "And that's important, especially when you're traveling with these people for three weeks in China."
What's more, sharing an adventure with kindred spirits might change your life. Karen Rotella's ski trip helped her through a midlife crisis. Soon after she returned, Rotella started a local women's support group. "I couldn't help wondering," she says, "why I had to go 2,000 miles to find camaraderie."
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