In Search of Ancient Goddesses and Pirate Queens
By Stephen Hartshorne
One of the most significant trends in the travel industy in recent years has been the dramatic increase in women-only travel.
Many women are finding that the best way to travel is in the company of a small group of women with the same interest in exploring the culture and the natural beauty of a destination.
The number of women-only tour offerings on the ‘Web has grown from just a handful ten years ago to tens of thousands today.
There has been a big increase in the number of women-only tours centered on outdoor adventure — kayaking in the Arctic or bicycling in Vietnam — as well as more luxury-oriented ‘girlfriend getaways’ and mother-daughter travel.
One innovative tour company is combining the small-group, women-only format with theme-based tours that explore the history of a destination.
The tours focus on notable women of history, who have often been neglected by historians until recent years.
These tours also provide an opportunity for women to retrace their roots and visit their families’ ancestral homelands.
The Wide-Wandering Goddess
Eurynome Journeys of Camden, Maine, has been a pioneer in the area of women-only travel since 1998, when founder Erja Lipponen started her website www.wanderwoman.com.
Named for the “wide-wandering” Goddess Eurynome, the company combines the small-group women-only format with tours that focus on the history of countries like Greece, Egypt and Ireland, with an emphasis on historical figures like the female Pharoah Hatshepsut, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt or Grace O’Malley the Irish pirate queen.
Eurynome founder Erja Lipponen is an educator and a history scholar, and she says learning is a big part of what makes a great vacation.
“I am finding that vacations spent lying on the beach and shopping just aren’t what most women today are looking for,” she says. “More and more women are interested in travel that is intellectually stimulating and they want to be active.
“Instead of sitting on a bus, they want to explore — although most do enjoy relaxing at the beach after a good hike, or a visit to a museum or a historic site.
“More and more women of all ages taking classes, some for fun or due to career changes; most are health-conscious and eager to learn and challenge themselves. Women-only tours provide a friendly and supportive opportunity to do so. There is no test at the end.”
“Women have different interests than men. Most women are not interested in battle sites as much as cultural history — the lives of men and the lives of women (largely ignored by historians until recently) in times past. And they like to meet women from other countries and learn about how they perceive the world.”
A Great Way to Learn
Eurynome’s trips to Greece and Egypt are grounded in mythology, history and archaeology, with special emphasis on Hatshepsut; Nefertiti, the mother of King Tut; Cleopatra VII, the Macedonian queen of Egypt; the philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, and other prominent women of the ancient world.
They also visit modern art galleries and learn about life in modern-day Egypt.
The Ireland tour centers on visiting the home of Grace O’Malley (Granuaile) the famous 16th-century pirate queen and other important archaeological sites.
“I think travel is a great way to learn,” Lipponen says, “be it history, cooking, kayaking — and to discover oneself and to find one’s strengths and develop new interests.”
Lipponen has been arranging and leading custom tours for individuals and small groups for 17 years with Leisure Markets Inc., and she started Eurynome Journeys in 1998 as an alternative to “the typical group tour.”
“My aim is to provide an opportunity for women to travel without breaking the bank, with the safety and convenience of traveling with a small group (usually about six to ten women) and a knowledgeable tour escort to attend to details.”
“The pace is is leisurely, allowing for exploration on one’s own. Our tours are not the big corporate tour operator type of trips. They are informal and relaxed.”
Associate Professor Tina Passman of the University of Maine says Lipponen put together an “outstanding experience” for 23 students and 3 professors in 2008:
“We traveled to Greece and Crete. The preplanning we did with her was detailed and informative. Her suggestions to the students were spot-on and useful, since most of our students were leaving the country for the first time.”
“The tour guides, Dionysia on the mainland, and George on Crete, were knowledgable and worked with the students, answering questions, being always courteous, friendly, helpful and inspiring.”
“We came away from the trip loving the experience and wanting more. As a matter of fact, we are hoping to take a group of students to Egypt in January, 2011, and will be working with Erja on putting this package together.”
Taking Care of the Details
Solo travel has its appeal for many intrepid women, but many find that it’s a big relief to have someone who really knows the territory take care of the details.
Carolyn Vidito traveled solo to Italy to celebrate two years as a breast cancer survivor. She was set to celebrate her fourth year with a solo trip to Greece when a friend told her about Eurynome Journeys.
“I was so impressed by Erja’s enthusiasm and the idea traveling with a small group of women that I decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did.
“Erja is so knowledgeable about all aspects of Greek culture and Greek mythology. Her selection of guides as well as her own experience added so much to our tour. Every detail from the quaint hotels and restaurants, transportation and even the daily handouts she gave us made for a more enjoyable and relaxing experience. It was so wonderful not to have to worry about the planning and scheduling myself. Erja handled every detail seamlessly and treated each traveler with caring and patience.”
“I know for certain that had I traveled to Greece myself, I would not have had near the unforgettable and enjoyable experience that I had traveling with Erja and my fellow travelers.”
Marilyn Malone traveled to Greece and to Egypt with Eurynome Travels. “I enjoyed my trips with Erja thoroughly,” she says. “She is a very talented, dedicated, educated and energetic leader. Her groups are small, and the intimacy adds to the experience rather than being herded like cattle on and off of huge buses. We stayed in lovely, quaint inns in interesting and convenient locations for sightseeing.”
Lipponen says Eurynome selects hotels that are centally located and cannot accomodate larger groups. “Most of the properties are not luxury,” she says, “although some are. Most are family-run with local character.”
Women who have traveled with Eurynome attest to Lipponen’s expertise in finding inns and restaurants that really give the traveler a feel for the country. Another key element is finding the best local guides.
“I am fortunate over the years to have found incredible local guides, who have become good friends. I believe that having excellent local guides is so important that I do my itinieraries based on when my favortie local guides are able to join us.
“Small private tours with knowledgeable local guides really make a big difference when sites like the Acropolis [in Athens] or the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. With a small group it is possible to ask questions and have discussions with the guides about what we are seeing.”
Lipponen, who is finishing a master’s degree in history and has been visiting Greece for 24 years, is a knowlegeable guide herself.
Barbara Costopoulos, whose grandfather fled from Ionian Greece in 1924, returned to her family homeland with Eurynome Journeys. “For me, being Greek, it was very emotional,” she says. “It was great to be where everyone could pronounce my name.”
Eileen Beck went to Ireland to retrace her family roots. “This was my first trip abroad,” she says, “and Erja made it so real and special for me. I don’t enjoy large tourist spots or cruises with tons of people. I felt like I was back in my homeland.”
On a trip to an arcaeological site, Beck’s group discovered an ancient artifact, a bone stickpin fashioned more than 1,000 years ago. “I’m sure that would not happen on a large bus tour,” she says.
Lipponen is also a runner, a hiker and a cross-country skier, and she includes optional hikes, walks and other activities on her tours.
“On Crete we hiked the Samaria Gorge,” says Marilyn Malone, “and I will remember that always, not only for the scenery, but also because of the challenge of actually doing it! Others in the group who chose not to go enjoyed the day in the gorgeous, colorful village. Erja is in great shape, but she makes sure even slower hikers are encouraged and and don’t feel that they’re holding up the group.”
Eurynome’s Greek journey begins at the Acropolis in Athens and continues to the Ventian city of Chania, the palace of the legendary King Minos at Knossos, Crete, and the islands of Santorini, Delos (birthplace of Apollo and Artemis) and Mykonos with its world-famous beaches.
There are plenty of opportunities to learn about the history and culture of Greece, but also plenty of opportunties to relax and lie on the beach.
The journey in Egypt visits the Pyramids at Giza, museums in Cairo, the temples at Luxor and Karnak and other historic highlights like the Valley of Kings and Queens, the Colossi at Memnon and the temple of Egypt Hatshepsut at El Deir.
Eurynome travelers also study belly dancing and learn about the history of this ancient art form.
There is an optional extension that visits the amazing red rock city of Petra in Jordan and includes a sunrise hike up Mt. Sinai.
The Pirate Queen
The Ireland journey centers on the 16th century pirate queen Grace O’Malley (Granuaile) who commanded a fleet and 200 fighting men and famously met with Queen Elizabeth I of England with excursions to some of the castles that O’Malley won sometimes by love, sometimes by war.
“The trip is not a history tour per se,” Lipponen says, “but history and local lore are woven into the tour itinerary providing a focus for our journey.”
Anne Chambers, author of the best-selling biography of the pirate queen, accompanies the group on a tour of “Grace O’Malley country.” Archaeologist Michael Gibbons leads an exploration of the archaeology and natural wonders of breathtaking Connemara.
The tour begins in the Burren, where there are neolithic burial sites dating back more than 2,000 years, and continues to Westport and O’Malley’s stronghold on the Isle of Clare, and then to Clifden in beautiful Connemara, with an optional three-day extension in Dublin.
Art and Nature
Eurynome also has a tour of Maine centered on art and nature that includes pictuesque coastal villages, little island havens, lighthouses, mountain trails with spectacular views, and art galleries and museums.
The guide for the Maine journey is True Soilikki, who with her dog Timber have hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide “trail,” (a total of 7,926 miles) as well as the Way of St. James in Spain and the Bear Trail in Finland.
For the Eurynome journey, Soilikki has selected her favorite hikes in Maine. The trip also includes a visit to Mt. Desert Island, a getaway of the Rockefellers and other notables of the early 1900s. John D. Rockefeller built fifty miles of carriage roads that are closed to automobiles and are very popular for bicycling.
The trip also includes an optional kayaking expedition to the Curtis Lighthouse.
A journey to India, planned for next year, will focus on the history of yoga and ayurvedic medicine. Eurynome Journeys also arranges custom tours for universities, history and art programs and nursing programs as well as heritage tours, alumni travel, educational tours, trips for clubs, organizations, and family vacations.
The main emphasis on Eurynome Journeys is on careful planning, flexibility and a balance of activities.
“Every day is planned for excursions and time off,” Malone says, “really nicely balanced. She has the transportation planned and organized. At every location, she has a little meeting with handouts of recommended sightseeing and restaurants and anything else of interest for you to explore in your time away from planned actitivities.
“You will come back rested, knowledgeable, recharged, healthy and happy that you went.”
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