Photo Credit: Courtesy of Alesandra Dubin
Few things in life rival the fun and soul satisfaction of a vacation with girlfriends — whether it’s to celebrate a milestone occasion, or just to dish and bond. No matter your budget, personality type, or group dynamic, check out these 10 ideas for where to go with friends.
Hit the Spa
With so much going on in our daily lives, even planning a vacation can start to seem like an utterly daunting chore. If that’s what it feels like to you — don’t let it. The perfect remedy for a stressed-out girl group? A spa weekend, of course. Let the relentless itineraries and scheduling remain in your real life while you totally recharge with manis, pedis, facials, massages, steam — all of it.
A spa vacation is perfect for a group of girlfriends, because it allows so much relaxed time to really catch up without the rush. Sit side-by-side and dish on all the overdue gossip while your polish dries. Sweat it out in the sauna while working together on a plan to tackle those nagging issues at home — and then feel truly inspired to implement it when you get back.
Great Places to Check Out: For a total splurge, the Montage Beverly Hills spa is the best in L.A. — lounge around the opulent mineral pool, or at the rooftop pool with views. If you want to find a great equivalent in your local area, check out SpaFinder for finding and booking 20,000 locations.
Now, if you’re up for something truly far flung, head to Southeast Asia for the absolute best, and most affordable, spa treatments anywhere in the world. On a recent trip to Vietnam, we indulged in treatments every day for only a few dollars each. And at one point, a girlfriend and I removed our eyemasks to notice about an army of about six ladies dutifully managing our indulgent pedicures! The over-the-top spoiling is worth the price of the flight — once you're there everything is pretty affordable.
There’s nothing budget friendlier than a camping trip, and there’s nothing more evocative or inspiring than the smell of a campfire intertwining with clean air. Sure, it takes a lot of planning (Who’s responsible for bringing the camp stove, the wood, the water…?) and a ton of gear, but the result is a ton of bonding time for typically just a few dollars.
Great Places to Check Out: In a word: Yosemite. Be warned those sites — and the other super beautiful and thus super popular ones around the country — require major advance planning. Or, you could go the last-minute route and cross your fingers: We once scored a coveted spot at Big Sur’s Pfeiffer campground on the Fourth of July weekend by pulling up at the fortunate moment someone was giving away an extra spot.
Know Before You Go: To reserve a great campsite, book early on ReserveAmerica.com. And because it can be hard to know which site is a score (say, one with a great view) versus which one is a dud (say, on a major hillside or too near the bathrooms), research your space on Campsitephotos.com before committing. Take it from the girl who unknowingly booked a space on a severe grade at a wooded and remote Boulder Basin campground near Southern California’s Idyllwild and accidentally sent one friend careening in a camp chair backward down a hillside. (True story.) Live and learn!
Head to Vegas, Baby
There’s truly no place like Las Vegas. It’s got everything from gambling (of course) to killer shopping to amazing upscale dining to glitzy nightclubs to pools that rival those anywhere on earth for sheer size and amenities. Here’s another thing I love about Vegas: Nowhere else in the world can you get such high-end, opulent, five-star hotel rooms for such a reasonable price point. Especially if you can manage to get away mid-week or away from holiday or major event periods, you can score a room with insane details like iPads that control every detail of your comfort, bathrooms double the size of my first New York apartment, and furnishings that would give Marie Antoinette pause, for under $200.
Great Places to Check Out: For such luxury, I love: the endlessly chic Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, the sprawling and well-appointed Venetian and connecting Palazzo, and the Signature at MGM Grand for a more subdued residential-style pick. For shopping, the Forum Shops at Caesars and Crystals at CityCenter are can’t-miss picks. For dining, Olives and Yellowtail at the Bellagio offer one-of-a-kind lake views with patios, and note that every single restaurant at Wynn and Encore offer special vegan-friendly fare designed by chef Tal Ronnen (who catered Ellen and Portia’s wedding!).
Vegas is ideal for all kinds of celebratory occasions with girlfriends, of course — but bachelorette parties there are (notorious and) crazy fun. When I went with a group of 14 or so to celebrate my bachelorette, nothing beat the feeling of strutting around in my play veil and high-fiving all the other similarly-outfitted soon-to-be brides during long Red Bull-fueled days and nights of sunning, shopping and tearing up dance floors. Sniff, what a memory!
Be House Bound
Another unbeatable way of catching up with friends is to rent a big vacation house somewhere beautiful — or anywhere, really — and just. stay. put. VRBO.com (for “vacation rentals by owner”) and HomeAway.com are great places to research homes for any size group. Pick a place that works for you, gather the group, make a massive grocery and booze run at the beginning of the stay — and remain blissfully unscheduled for the duration. Plan and cook meals as a group, then sit around and sip wine late into the night, with no need to designate a driver and no need to check the clock.
Know Before You Go: This method does have its caveats: Renting a huge house comes with additional fees, like mandatory cleaning charges and security deposits — so it can be a lot for one member of the group to shoulder on her credit card upfront (and not a great match if your friends are flaky).
I’ve loved doing this as a group with friends in the sweltering heat of summer in Palm Springs (hey, it’s not for everyone). We’ve floated in the pool all day, and then retired to the shaded porch for afternoon workshops like friendship bracelets, fishtail braid tutorials and recipe demos. Ask everyone to bring something to do, or something to teach. And go home with fun new skills!
Nothing feels grosser than returning from a vacation feeling utterly laden and bloated from overindulgence — and that’s almost always the case, isn’t it? Combat that feeling with a fitness-based vacation that can utterly revitalize your entire body, so you come back to work and responsibilities feeling like a new woman.
Great Places to Check Out: For an amazing yoga retreat among friends, Mexico’s Tulum is a perfect, with multiple properties that cater to just that type of traveler. Across the globe, Indonesia’s spiritual island of Bali offers yoga and meditation experiences that are nothing short of transformative. The Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan has a schedule of classes conducted in a jungle environment amid lotus flowers and rushing river water that are completely mind-expanding and blissful — the experience is a splurge worthy of any bucket list.
Closer to home (and back down to earth, budget-wise) I’ve found hiking trips with girlfriends to be among the most fundamental bonding experiences of our relationships. Try hiking in and out of the Grand Canyon in the truly insane heat of late June, as we did (that's us in the picture), and see if you don’t feel closer at the end of it to the folks who survived the intense (and majorly calorie-burning) experience with you!
Soak Up Urban Culture
If a little excitement is what you need, pick an urban destination and lap up all the culture, shopping and dining your hearts desire. This is a great match for the group who thrives on energy, and appreciates the likes of museum- and theater-going — plus endless opportunities for people watching.
Great Places to Check Out: Chicago makes a great getaway for culture vultures, who can soak in the Art Institute of Chicago’s well-known offerings, or the Dose Market for a more off-the-grid curated fashion and food experience. Then take a load off and chat into the night in the plush robes in a suite at the gorgeous Waldorf Astoria.
Or further south, hit up the very buzzy and energetic Austin (the home of the South by Southwest and Austin City Limits events). Make sure to take a sightseeing break at the massive, spring-fed, three-acre Barton Springs Pool. Ahhh.
If beaches are your thing (you're my kind of gal), head to Miami for your city getaway. Do some shopping in the Miami Design District, siesta on the sand and cap off your day with dinner and dreamtime at the Viceroy or SLS hotels.
Go for the Food
Maybe your group’s idea of a good time is any place with amazing edibles. Foodie vacations are perfect for groups — because there’s nothing but time to explore all the world’s deepest existential questions (and catch up on hot gossip, of course) over endless courses of ooh-and-ahh-worthy dishes.
Great Places to Check Out: You can’t beat New York City for the ultimate gastronomic tour. Hit the enduringly buzzy Balthazar from restauranteur Keith McNally, or David Chang’s Momofuku for impeccable (and totally affordable) noodles. Oenophiles and French food appreciators will want to score a table at Bar Boulud. And the list goes on and on — from grab-and-go street food classics to good-luck-getting-reservations fine dining.
Or, why not plan a whole girls' getaway around a food festival? The BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival just happens to be in one of our favorite charming and historic Southern cities — and it's a seriously hot foodie destination right now.
Swirl and Sip
Nothing like free-flowing wine to encourage conversation and endless giggles among friends. Indeed, a wine-tasting vacation is great for a group celebrating a milestone occasion — or just celebrating lifelong friendship (which we say is plenty good reason to pop a few bottles)!
Great Places to Check Out: On the east coast, there are vineyards dotted throughout upstate New York and Long Island.
But for the real deal, California’s wine region including Napa, Sonoma and Calistoga offer strikingly picturesque vistas dotted with tons of wineries that include extras like world-class art collections and terrific picnic spots. The best thing to do is hire a driver, if possible: Drinking and driving from stop to stop is an absolute no-no.
For a really, really special occasion (if money is no object), stay at Rutherford’s luxurious Auberge du Soleil. And cap off a once-in-a-lifetime experience with dinner at what’s often regarded as the world’s top restaurant: Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. (Just make sure you book your reservation for a table two months in advance, or a year in advance for the private room.)
Try a Volunteer Vacation
Our limited downtime is precious, and it can be hard to imagine getting a group together to do some work while on vacation. But you might find that the experience can be so rewarding as to make it one of the best trips of your lives — and the activities involved in volunteering in a new community can be great team-building among your friends. And don’t feel daunted: You might like to find a volunteer-based activity in your chosen destination that takes just a few hours of a given day, and you can spend the rest of your vacation relaxing, and feeling great about what you accomplished.
In Belize, we visited P.AW. Cat Sanctuary and Humane Society and spent a couple of hours with its devoted proprietor, Madi. We even brought a spare smartphone we had to donate to her cause of snapping photos of the kitties. In just a short visit, we felt refreshed of spirit — and hopefully did a small bit of good as well.
Know Before You Go: You probably already know that TripAdvisor is an amazing resource for all things vacation and travel related. But do you know about its forums feature? A great way to unearth volunteer opportunities at your destination is to pose the question to the forums, which often have highly engaged and knowledgeable local contributors.
Have a Killer Staycation
Maybe it’s a matter of budgeting, or scheduling, or logistics — but maybe a trip out of town is not in the cards. “Staycation” doesn't have to mean “not a vacation at all” as long as you keep in mind that the real essential components of a girlfriend vacation are time and space isolated from the demands of everyday life.
Each year, I look forward to a girlfriend weekend with a group of about 10 of us, loosely organized around my birthday in July. This year, we don’t see an out-of-town trip being in the cards: I’ll be eight months pregnant with twins! So we’ve already discussed the alternative: a staycation in our home city at the utterly luxurious (and convenient) Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills (which also happens to be closer to my delivery hospital than even my own home). And I’d hardly call that a concession!
Know Before You Go: Instead of staying in your home with all of its mundane distractions, consider a hotel in your same city, where everyone can come together. Then pack your bags full of books and mags to read at the pool or spa, cards and dominos, board games, crafting supplies — whatever suits your group. Ditch any nonessential trappings of your ordinary lives, like too much technology, and discourage family members from contacting you with any non-emergency drudgery. Remember, just because you’re in town doesn’t mean you’re any less on vacation!