WITH WOMEN-CENTRIC TRAVEL SKYROCKETING, ONE FEMALE-RUN, FEMALE-ONLY TRAVEL COMPANY IS OFFERING THE CHANCE FOR LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCES
BY Angela Caraway-Carlton
While flipping through a travel magazine at her kitchen counter one morning, Mary Oves stumbled across a promotion for a horseback-riding trip in southern Iceland. It promised rides through picturesque valleys and unreal lava fields, with stops at hot springs and pools, along with a visit to a Viking farm—and most appealing, it was a female-only vacation hosted by a travel company called Adventure Women.
Oves needed an escape from her home in Ocean City, New Jersey. Her husband had passed away just eight months earlier after battling medical problems for years.
Oves impulsively booked the tour, set for June 2018. “I was always passionate about travel, but we were limited on what we could do because of my husband’s health. For once in my life, nothing was stopping me,”says Oves, adding that her children were grown and out on their own. “I had to get out of my mind and go where no one knew me or what I’ve been through and didn’t feel sorry for me.”
Arriving in Iceland, the 53-year-old was joined by eight total strangers from all over the nation.“I loved the anonymity of it. When you travel, you don’t have to disclose anything about yourself, and for me, it was freedom,” Oves says. As the days passed, the women became confidantes. “We were a beautiful motley crew. Some whole, some broken. Women lacking self-actualization or fine-tuning it.” While the trip delivered on thrilling experiences—riding Icelandic horses through the wild terrain, viewing beautiful lagoons and waterfalls, and mingling with the people who call the area home—Oves says transformational moments spread throughout the group of women.
“There was raucous laughter, cathartic breakdowns. We never descended to cattiness, mean comments or cliques. We formed a bond that was strong and true.”
Most importantly, Oves began to deal with past hurts that haunted her. “I had lived in fear for a long time. Afraid of losing my husband, afraid for my boys to lose their dad,” she explains.
One day during the trip, her horse started galloping so fast that Oves feared she would fall off and be killed.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to orphan my kids,’” she recalls. “Finally, I just let go and gave up that fear. All of a sudden, I was just done being afraid. If I fell, I fell. For the rest of the trip, people practically didn’t recognize me because I became very quiet and calm.”
That stillness followed Oves home, and now one year later, she says it’s even more pronounced. And the women she met during her time in Iceland? They stay in frequent touch, travel together and will gather again for a reunion trip with AdventureWomen in June 2020.
“They were the people with me when I was reborn,” Oves says. “All the dysfunction of illness, death and grief, when I was buried in all that muck, they are the ones who coaxed me out of it. They are my sisters.”
Life-changing stories like Oves’ convinced Judi Wineland to purchase AdventureWomen in September 2016. The women-only travel company was founded by adventure pioneer Susan Eckert. She reached out to Wineland to buy the company when she was ready to retire. At first, Wineland declined; she and her husband already had their hands full running their award-winning safari company, Thomson Safaris, in Tanzania. It was her oldest daughter, Nicole, who saw the potential to grow the company into something even bigger and convinced her mother to take the leap.
Now, Judi serves as the managing director, Nicole vets partners and designs the trips, and her youngest daughter Erica, a mountaineer and outdoor enthusiast, is the general manager. Since taking over, the trio of women has grown the business from around 20 trips a year to 80, with 40 destinations. The trend in women-centric travel is growing, and Wineland says they’re inundated with ladies who want to discover new places and, ultimately, new things about themselves.
“What we’re seeing is women who have the disposable income to do what they want. They’re thinking about themselves. Some of their husbands would rather go fishing or don’t want to travel internationally, but these women are not staying home.”
What transpires is a trip filled with women from all walks of life—single, married, divorced, widowed—with the average age range of 40-70, along with the occasional 20-something who heard about the company from a podcast.
Itineraries are limitless, from hiking and horseback riding in the Canadian Rockies to a private wildlife cruise in the Galapagos Islands to hiking the Portuguese Way on the Camino, all with a mix of adventure and rare experiences. “We play hard during the day, but we have a nice place to stay at night.
The luxury is in the experience,” says Wineland. Trips range from seven to 14 days and usually have no more than 14 participants. While most travelers come alone, the company now also offers mother-daughter trips. “We get mothers who want to show their daughters what life is like outside of their normal world, and it’s just so much fun for them.”
Born for Adventure
Wineland’s love of travel was sparked in 1968, when she was 18-yearsold and a member of an all-girls band invited by the USO to perform for the military in Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
“I had never been out of the country. I was a little suburban gal at Colorado State University, and I didn’t know that another world was out there,” she says.
As travel inherently does, it forever changed her. “When I’m traveling, I always find myself re-evaluating who I am and questioning what my values are and why I’ve done the things I’ve done.” And, that’s just what she wants clients to take away from an AdventureWomen trip—she’s not just in the vacation business but in the transformation business.
“When you put these women in a place that’s out of their comfort zone, perspectives shift, priorities shift, and they come home a different person,” she says.
Wineland believes part of that dramatic shift comes from a cultural component attached to every trip. Often, travelers meet with other women in villages where they are one of three wives or have never left their village. A translator allows them to have important conversations to dig deep into their vastly different cultures.
“These are some of the most transformational moments. Our women realize that we are similar in so many ways and yet so different,” says Wineland. “When you’re somewhere like Tanzania and 20 massive elephants trumpet by you, you realize just how small you are. People leave and start protecting things they care about, even becoming conservationists or donors to the Maasai women in Tanzania to help them become entrepreneurs.”
Another difference in her trips: An AdventureWomen ambassador comes along on each trip to offer support and encouragement when the travelers become tired or to help curb negativity that could easily spread among the group.
“Sometimes they’ll offer a hug or an acknowledgment that it’s not a good day,” Wineland explains, “and often the other women will come to embrace that woman having a bad day. It’s so supportive.”
She also kept an integral part of the travel program developed by founder Eckert: Most women are paired up with a roommate and then switch roommates when the group moves hotels or camps, so they get to know different people. Wineland added private rooms upon request, offering women the options to share or be alone. “Usually the women end up chatting until one in the morning.”
It seems to be a formula for success. More than 60 percent of Wineland’s clients book another trip with AdventureWomen, and some women even take as many as four trips a year. “They may choose the destination because it’s a bucket list, but they don’t realize what will be in the bucket,” says Wineland. “The destination is just the beginning.”
For 2020, AdventureWomen has curated a lineup with several standout, far-flung destinations, and Judi Wineland offers a preview of what to expect:
MOUNT KILIMANJARO. This trip is especially close to Wineland’s heart, as her entire family has climbed the highest mountain in Africa, and the company has a rare 98-percent summit rate. “Kilimanjaro is a non-stop trek up where you go through these different zones, the rain forest, the heath, the moorlands, the alpine desert … it’s just exhilarating,” she says. “A lot of women come on this trip thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll make it, maybe I won’t.’ But we really take our time. When the women summit, they can’t stop saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I did it!’ Sometimes, we don’t have faith in ourselves, but you’re supported by other like-minded women.”
OMAN. AdventureWomen is the first women’s company to venture to this Middle Eastern country on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. “The Middle East is so different from any other place in the world,” says Wineland. “There is this beautiful desert where we camp, and then suddenly we’re in an oasis where it’s green. Then, boom, you’re up in the mountains, and then you’re on the oceanfront—it takes your breath away. We’ll also meet Omani women entrepreneurs in a country that doesn’t necessarily celebrate women. You’re going to see something different, feel something different and ultimately be something different.
TANZANIA. This 10-day trip is the special chance to embark on a safari where you’ll see majestic wildlife. You’ll also spend time with the Maasai women, who make their home in a settlement of traditional huts, to learn about their lives living in a remote village, often as one of multiple wives. “You’re in the Serengeti, the most incredible place with the largest biomass in the world. Elephants and lions walking past you, and you’re camping out in the wilderness,” says Wineland. “This is where life has been like this forever, and you feel insignificant and smaller than you imagine.”
BHUTAN. This is a cultural dream trip offering the chance to discover the secret world of tiny Bhutan, a Himalayan jewel hidden in the forests and clouds, where Bhutanese culture and ancient traditions thrive. “This is a really great hiking trip, where you’re trekking high Himalayan mountain passes for breathtaking views of verdant valleys. It’s a spiritual journey in that you’re in a Buddhist country,” says Wineland. “You’ll not only visit a monastery and one of Bhutan’s two oldest temples, but you’ll get the incredible chance to participate in a spiritual drum ceremony at the Pema Choeling Nunnery, a rare meeting with the women there.”
BAJA. Wineland describes this sunny vacation as one of the most fun trips for women. “We have a camp out on this island, and it’s literally like glamping,” she says. “There are blue lagoons, snorkeling with sea lions and whale watching in Magdalena Bay. The women learn to surf, which makes them laugh, and then relax with wine under the stars at night. This is where women just downright have fun.”