Published March 8, 2017 in Conde Naste Traveler
AdventureWomen was originally founded by pioneering female travel guide and company operator Susan Eckert, who upon her retirement sold the business to Judi Wineland, one of the many women she’d mentored over the years. It was then that Wineland and her two thirtysomething daughters, Nicole and Erica, decided to transform the business from company into dynasty.
Elder daughter Nicole Wineland-Thomson went to business school and handles much of the behind-the-scenes logistics of trip planning in addition to staffing several journeys per year. “I took my first steps in Tanzania, learned to swim in New Zealand,” she says about her peripatetic childhood as the daughter of Judi, who ran tour companies and guided people on safaris. “[Travel] is just in my blood. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” And while Nicole, who never visited Europe on a vacation until she went on her own as an adult, may seem like a hardcore road warrior, she thinks of herself as the less-intrepid sister of Erica, a professional mountaineer.
While lots of travelers could go horseback riding in Iceland or kayaking in Mexico on their own, AdventureWomen offers not just the safety of numbers, but the comfort of friends. Before the trip even begins, AdventureWomen reps have long phone chats with guests to answer questions about everything from food allergies to bathroom facilities, and there’s a Pinterest board of items they recommend packing for each experience. They'll also tackle questions like where to buy tampons, wash Diva Cups, or stock up on birth control prescriptions abroad, not to mention practical information about the best quick-drying underwear you can wash in your hotel room sink.The company’s commitment to immersive travel means that groups meet with local women to learn about their lives and find cross-cultural similarities. One of Nicole’s favorite experiences was meeting with a community of female free-divers in rural Japan. “We met this group of women that have been free-divers for centuries—and it’s a dying art. The men don’t do it,” she says. “The women free dive for pearls, and we meet them and go out in the water with them, and then share a meal together.” A translator joins the groups so that the women can ask each other personal questions—not just about Japanese culture, but about their daily lives. In Egypt and Jordan, travelers can talk to local women about headscarves and the different attitudes about wearing them. And an upcoming trip to Finland will include a personal audience with the country’s first female president, Tarja Halonen, who served from 2000-2012.
Despite the relative safety of being in a group, issues come up that not even the best prepared tour guide can navigate. It’s not uncommon for lesbian couples to join AdventureWomen trips, but some countries have laws against same-sex relationships or public displays of affection, which can eliminate the feeling of ease the tour company was designed to instill. “We make sure women are aware [of local rules and customs] ahead of time, and it comes down to educating and providing a reason and an opportunity to ask questions,” Nicole says about trip planning. “We have same-sex couples who have traveled with us, so we’re open with them about the country and its customs, and we hope our guests are being respectful because they’re a guest in someone else’s country. But we also don’t want guests to feel offended or like they can’t enjoy themselves. It’s a balance. We put them in situations where they won’t be harassed or uncomfortable.”
AdventureWomen’s MO is to stay off the grid. While the company does plan trips to popular countries like Italy, it skips Florence and Milan in favor of the countryside. Being in smaller, more isolated places helps the group stick together and share common experiences without the risk of someone wandering off down an alley or deciding to ditch the others. “We want to get lost as a group and bond by going to a place that’s off the radar,” says Nicole. “Women enjoy being a group and bonding and growing and feeling triumphant together.” And that’s true about life in general, not just travel.