We call it the Sistertrip, and the rules are simple and sacred: no husbands, no children, no excuses.
Every spring, the four graying baby boomers formerly known as the Shea Girls take off together for a sisters-only long weekend. We've lingered over sunset dinners in a glass-walled house on the coast of Vancouver Island. We've explored graceful old Charleston, funky Savannah and the Low Country in between. We've gawked at the opulence of Spain's glory days in Madrid and brooded over the El Grecos in Toledo. And we've watched spring unfold between New Orleans and Natchez from the decks of a Mississippi River paddle wheeler.
The Sistertrip is a kind of bequest from our father, a Brooklyn Irishman who grew up an only child and was determined to create not just a family but a clan. His answer to back-seat squabbles, adolescent feuds and grown-up tensions was to roar, "Love each other!"
It worked. As we shuttled between our homes in Vermont and Virginia in the months before he died five years ago, we spent more time together as sisters than we had since we left home for college. Our mother had died the year before, and on the night we finished packing up our family's treasures and memories, we realized that with our parents, we had lost the centrifugal force that had held us together all our lives. We didn't want weddings and funerals to be the only times we were together.
That's when we invented the Sistertrip. We decided that every year, between April 23 and May 4--the birthdays of the two younger sisters--we would go away together for a long weekend. Just the four of us. One of us would plan the trip each year, and we would try to hold expenses to around $1,000 apiece. For the sake of the Vermonters, we would follow the spring.
Reactions were interesting. Husbands were supportive, if a bit puzzled, and our 12 mostly grown children pronounced it very cool, even after they found out that none of them would be going along--ever. Friends were a little jealous.
As the senior sister, I was the first trip planner. It wasn't as simple as it looked. Resorts were out--we are fifth-generation North Woods summer cottage people who like a place with some character where we can settle in. So were beaches, ocean cruises and group tours--we are museum-goers, history lovers, outdoor types and very independent travelers.
So I spent some happy Sunday afternoons in bookstore travel sections and cruised the Internet by night. Someplace warm, I thought, but the most intriguing Mexican destinations were hard to reach in one day's travel. Someplace wild, then--but April is still winter in the high plains and desert, and the coasts of Northern California and Oregon are a little quiet for some of us.
Would it be more fun to discover terra incognita with my sisters or to share a place I had loved? In the end, the travel goddesses took over. In a guide to offbeat places to stay, I stumbled upon a house at French Beach on the south coast of Vancouver Island, 45 minutes from Victoria, B.C.: "a secluded ocean-front cedar home with 180-degree southwest panoramic views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Olympic Mountains, fabulous sunrises and sunsets, sea life and whales." Perfect.
Since this was the first Sistertrip and I was making up the ground rules, I thought it would be fun to make the destination a surprise. I would tell my sisters what kind of weather to pack for but not where they would wind up. They would discover their flight destination when their tickets arrived, but the rest of the trip would unfold as we went. I figured they'd love it.
Wrong. The grumbling started over Montana, and when hostilities threatened to break out on final approach, I spilled the beans about Vancouver Island. Things threatened to heat up again when we were stuck in line for an hour at the ferry dock, so I told them about the house on the cliff, prayed it would live up to its billing, and counted on the boat ride to work its magic.
It did. The ferry trip from Tsawwassen on the mainland to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island is one of the best ways on the planet to spend 95 minutes. The vistas are as bold and stylized as a kindergartner's crayon drawing; the chill waters of the Straits of Georgia roll like a sheet of stainless steel past rock-bound islands where tall, triangle-topped trees lean into the wind on the cliff tops and march in deep green ranks to the skyline. Pods of orcas--black-and-white "Free Willy" whales--often swim near the ships.
Standing together on the windy deck, we exchanged grins and high-fives. The Sistertrip was going to work.
We all remember our first night at the French Beach house with special pleasure. It was twilight by the time we drove up the steep, twisting drive, past banks of rhododendrons and into a grove of tall old trees. A traditional Pacific Coast native totem guarded the entrance to the angular modern house. Inside, floor-to-ceiling windows framed spectacular views across the strait to the snow-peaked Olympic Mountains of Washington.
We opened a bottle of wine and fell into an easy, familiar division of kitchen labor, eventually producing a good pasta, a big salad and a basket of warm, crusty bread. Candles burned low as we talked of our children and our parents, our jobs and our lives.
Decisions on how to spend the next three days came as easily as the dinner and the conversation. One morning we took an early morning walk along the deserted shore at French Beach Provincial Park and then drive down the coast road to Port Renfrew, where the road ends. From there we followed logging roads cross-country to Duncan, through forests of towering Douglas fir, hemlock and cedar where streams powerful enough to toss boulders over their shoulders roar down steep gorges toward the sea.
We spent an afternoon wandering the famed Butchart Gardens, a fantasy of tulips, daffodils and other spring delights bursting from every nook and cranny of an abandoned rock quarry and the formal gardens on the grounds of a turn-of-the-century country house. We dined at Sooke Harbour House, a white clapboard inn in a fishing village down the road from French Beach. The menu lived up to its billing as one of Canada's finest restaurants, with seafood from local waters and interesting dishes named for the island farms and gardens that produced them. Our table overlooked the water and the sunset.
By Sunday afternoon, when we queued up for the ferry and our Monday morning flights home, Debbie, the lawyer, was trying out ideas for next year. We had missed the boat again, so we broke out the last bottle of wine and poured it into the only containers we could scrounge up: black plastic film cartridges.
"Ah," said Dottie, the land-use planner. "Another Kodak moment."
A year later, we were booked for Belize and the Mayan Trail, when eight days out, Debbie, the sister in charge, called to say that the tour company wanted another $500 apiece. Our confidence in the arrangements dissolved, so we canceled and scrambled for Plan B: Charleston and Savannah.
In Charleston, our luck held. Our last-minute B&B booking turned out to be an 1818 town house in a cobblestone courtyard a couple of blocks off the Battery, and the hosts introduced us to Ed Grimball.
Grimball is a native Charlestonian whose family landed in South Carolina in 1675, and his two-hour walking tours are a laid-back blend of history, architecture and the latest tidbits from his relentless pursuit of Charleston lore. "The truth is so interesting in this city, you don't have to make up a thing," he said.
As if to prove the point, Grimball interrupted his spiel to exchange a bit of banter with a white-haired gentleman headed home with the New York Times under his arm. "You all might recognize that gentleman," Grimball said. One of us did: Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam.
Savannah is to Charleston as the Grateful Dead is to the Juilliard Quartet--equally classic, but way funkier. We arrived on the day Clint Eastwood started shooting the movie version of "The Book," as "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is known in Savannah, so we surrendered.
It's hard to imagine rich, restored, retired Charleston embracing with a whoop of delight a nonfiction book that portrayed "The Holy City" as a wacko stew of booze, sex, murder, voodoo, hereditary ladies' card clubs and the Georgia bulldog, but Savannah thinks that's a hoot.
Every tour outfit in town will drive you past landmarks from John Berendt's perpetual bestseller, and ours scored an actual sighting. The real-life "Mandy" was planting petunias and chatting with book-wielding pilgrims in front of the Hamilton-Turner Mansion, the last address where she and piano player Joe Odom partied away their days. The Lady Chablis was onstage at Club One that night, but I was unable to persuade a sister to go.
It seemed just right to return to the Charleston airport via Beaufort, S.C., so we could pay our respects to Tidalholm, the 1860 house where "The Big Chill" was filmed.
The next year, I became the first Sistertrip no-show, the victim of a nonnegotiable schedule conflict with a new job. Three sisters went to Spain and reported wonderful hotels in Madrid and Toledo, a great vegetarian paella and a memorably close encounter between their rented car and a Spanish bus.
For our fourth Sistertrip, Mira, the college development officer, took us aboard the American Queen, sister ship of the legendary Delta Queen, for a five-day "Gardens of the River" cruise on the Mississippi, from New Orleans to Natchez and back.
The $65 million American Queen is modeled after one of the 10,000 steamboats that plied America's rivers in the 19th century. The decor is high Victorian, the staff is young and enthusiastic, the food is good, and a Broadway-style song-and-dance troupe performs nightly in the Grand Saloon, a reproduction of an 1890 river-town opera house. But the river is the main event.
We awoke the first morning to find shreds of mist drifting over the silent river on one side of the boat and, across the levee on the other side, the pale pink walls and twin galleries of Oak Alley plantation floating like an apparition at the end of an avenue of 28 arching live oak trees.
A few miles away at Laura Plantation, there are no hoop-skirted guides or sterling silver doorknobs. Named for one of its owners, Laura was rescued in 1993 by a group of investors determined to preserve it and the story it tells of the Creole culture with its rich blend of French, Spanish, Indian and African influences. Their tours are a passionate mix of history, culture and storytelling, much of it based on Laura Locoul's 70-page memoir of her childhood, which is as vivid as the yellow ocher paint on the house where she was born in 1861.
Laura's most successful owners were women, one guide explained. Creole gentry didn't automatically leave their property to the eldest son; "they left it to the smartest one." Respect is also paid to the West African artisans who built the house, which is identical to houses in their native Senegal. They brought other valuable traditions: "Compair Lapin," the West African folk tale that became "Br'er Rabbit," was first recorded in the slave cabins at Laura.
Our best afternoons on the river were spent in big wooden rocking chairs on a shady deck, books in hand, watching the shoreline roll by and listening to the on-board historian's explanations of sights along the way. The Mississippi is a hard-working river, and the stretch above New Orleans is lined with oil refineries, natural gas pumping stations and power plants. Pleasure boats are few. Barges as long as several football fields muscle stacks of freight containers against the fierce current. Farther north, herons and cypress trees stand in the shallows, and cattle graze in wide, green fields. The sun is warm, and behind the levee, church steeples and gabled rooftops mark the small towns. Another good trip.
After four years, the Sistertrip has found its own rhythm. The destination is usually chosen in December or January, so we have plenty of time to enjoy the anticipation, often by e-mail. (No surprises, of course.) So far, each of us has chosen a place she has been before and wanted to revisit. It's like giving our sisters a present.
Except for this year's riverboat cruise, we've stayed pretty close to our budget, mostly because we know the dates well in advance and have plenty of time to shop for good air fares. The planning sister books through her travel agent, and we meet up for the last leg of the flight. Renting a car allows us to set our own pace and leaves room for serendipity. We handle expenses in the most convenient way and settle up on the plane ride home.
Finding unusual places to stay is half the fun and worth paying a little extra. An inn, bed-and-breakfast or rented house gives us a place to relax together. Once we arrive, we decide what to do a day at a time and have had no trouble reaching a consensus. We've had mixed success at picking restaurants and probably ought to do more homework, especially since one of us is a vegetarian. We've had at least one memorable meal on each trip, the latest at a Texas-style barbecue joint in Natchez.
As we hoped, the Sistertrip gives us a time to be who we are only when we are all together: sisters. We have found that we still laugh at the same things, read the same books and have amazingly different recollections of the same events. We are stronger and closer.
We are also acquiring a new repertoire of family stories. While we were having brunch at Brennan's in New Orleans before boarding the boat, four women in identical outfits sat down at the next table. Four black jackets with quarter-size polka dots in lime green, hot pink and bright yellow. Four pair of black slacks and little black flats. Four straw hats and four black tote bags. Four sets of matching lipstick and nail polish. We couldn't decide whether they were garden tour hostesses or clerks in a catalogue outlet store.
What they turned out to be was four fellow passengers on the American Queen, an eighty-something mother and three daughters from Boston who perhaps thought their outfits were just the thing for a holiday Down South.
Next year, it's my turn to plan the trip again. I am thinking of Ireland and our cousin Brian's whitewashed cottages on the O'Shea family farm in County Kerry. But I haven't been to Tuscany in years, and I've never been to Mexico. Pleasant hours of travel reading lie ahead.
I do know that we won't be wearing matching outfits.
Gail Shea Nardi is a writer and recovering political consultant who lives in Fluvanna County, Va.
Planning a Sistertrip
A little planning goes a long way on the Sistertrip. Even though our "long weekend" has stretched to five days, it takes some precision to find flights that allow the Virginians and Vermonters to meet en route and fly the last leg of the trip together and to manage four accounts. Generally, we use travel guides and, increasingly, the Internet for the fun part--choosing a destination and finding interesting accommodations. The planning sister's travel agent books flights, hotels and rental cars.
Two of our favorite places--French Beach Retreats in Vancouver and our Charleston B&B--have closed. ("You don't think it's us, do you?" one sister joked.) But here are some other sources we found helpful in planning our trips.
Vacations West Holiday Home Rentals of Victoria, B.C. (1-888-383-1863, www.vacationswest.ca), lists Vancouver Island properties similar to French Beach Retreats', including a four-bedroom, two-bath oceanfront house near French Beach that rents for about $1,295 (U.S.) for three nights for four people, including all fees and taxes, plus a fully refundable $240 damage deposit.
A four-course dinner at Sooke Harbour House (1-800-889-9688) runs about $43 U.S. per person, plus tax and tip.
BC Ferries' (250-386-3431, www.bcferries.com) service to Vancouver Island runs hourly from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Summer fares from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay are $22 per car plus $6 per person. Washington State Ferries (250-381-1551) provides service on the scenic route from Anacortes, Wash. to Sidney. The Victoria Clipper (1-800-888-2535, www.victoriaclipper.com) from Seattle to Victoria is fast but less scenic.
The Tourism Association of Vancouver Island's comprehensive Web site is at www.victoriabc.com.
Ed Grimball's two-hour historic walking tours (306 Yates Ave., Charleston, S.C. 29412, 843-762-0056, www.charleston.net./com/egrimball) are limited to 12 people and start at 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., with seasonal evening tours. Tickets are $13; reservations are required.
Historic Charleston Bed & Breakfast (1-800-743-3583) dispenses information and reservations from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
A good visitors center is a boon on a short trip, and Charleston's is excellent (375 Meeting St., 1-800-868-8118).
Wakefield House, a two-bedroom cottage on East Congress Street in Savannah's historic district, rents for $180 double or $225 a night for four, including continental breakfast fixings. For reservations, call its sister property, the Azalea Inn, a funky Victorian B&B on the edge of the historic district (1-800-582-3823). For more information on lodgings, contact Historic Inns and Guest Houses (1-800-262-4667) or the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (1-877-728-2662).
Hospitality Tours of Savannah (912-233-0119) claims to be the originator of "The Book" bus tour, but every tour outfit in town followed suit. Tours last two hours or more, cost $14 or $15, and can be boarded at the Savannah Visitors Center, 301 Martin Luther King Blvd. Gray Line Tours (912-234-8687) features gossipy guides and comfortable mini-buses, and winds up at "The Book" gift shop at 127 E. Gordon St.
In 2000, there will be two "Gardens of the River" round-trip cruises from New Orleans aboard the American Queen: a seven-night trip to Vicksburg from May 24-31 and a seven-night cruise to Memphis from May 31 to June 7. Rates start at $2,280 per person for both, and include four meals a day, nightly entertainment and lectures. Passengers booking at least six months in advance with a $300 deposit receive free air fare or a $250 discount. Shore tours are an additional $10 to $44 each. Reservations and information: 1-800-543-1949, www.deltaqueen.com.
Laura Plantation (225-265-7690), built in 1805, is one hour west of New Orleans on Route 18, the Great River Road, at Vacherie, La. Tours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; admission is $7.
French Creole planters considered New Orleans their real home, and Le Monde Creole offers New Orleans courtyard tours based on Laura Locoul's diary. Tours begin at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.; tickets are $17.50. Reservations are required (504-568-1801).
--Gail Shea Nardi