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In These Anxious Times, Two Ways for Women to Seek Adventure Safely


Even the most intrepid travelers may be hunkering down now. But I warn you, the urge to go somewhere may come over you when you least expect it, as it did for Mary Bosanquet, a young Englishwoman who rode her bicycle across Canada as World War II was starting in Europe.

"I was bucketing down the Bayswater Road [in London] in a number 17 bus," Bosanquet wrote in "Canada Ride" (Hodder & Stoughton, 1944). "... And then, like a stone falling in a pond, the idea dropped into my mind. To ride across Canada. Just that. As simple as that, and as easy and difficult as that."

Fortunately for women who get hit on the head with a similar stone, there are less demanding ways to travel than the one Bosanquet chose, ways that keep you comfortable and, above all, safe in an uncertain world. My favorites for women travelers now are train tours and volunteer vacations.

In 1994 I took a memorable six-day train tour of New Zealand's North Island offered by Inta-Aussie, an L.A.-based travel company that specializes in trips to Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. It was unescorted, which I liked, and all my accommodations and transfers were arranged.

The tour included train rides from Auckland to Wellington, from Wellington to the sunny east coast town of Napier, and from Rotorua back to Auckland on the Geyserland Express.

It was spring in New Zealand. Outside my window I could see countless sheep and the beautiful greening countryside.

Inside the train car, I was as well taken care of as a child in a nursery. Attendants came around often with hot tea and treats and information on the itinerary. There were nice people to talk to, with their often incomprehensible Kiwi accents, and no hassles on the whole trip.

Derek Winter, the chief executive officer of Inta-Aussie, says camaraderie thrives on train tours in New Zealand and Australia. "Everybody belongs to the same club. Everything's 'G'day, mate."'

This year the company is offering about a dozen Down Under train tours, including the 14-day Great Australian Train Journey from Sydney to Melbourne, Adelaide and Alice Springs ($2,250 to $3,675, double occupancy), and the 13-day New Zealand Tourer, which covers the North and South islands ($1,640 to $1,925, double occupancy).

Other interesting train tours are available from the Rail Travel Center in Putney, Vt. The company specializes in escorted trips, including Scotland by Rail, Aug. 4 to 14 ($2,299, double occupancy), and Central America, Maya and Rail Adventure, April 14 to 26 ($3,499, double occupancy). The latter includes rides on the vintage Guatemala Choochoo and the new Expreso Maya, which goes to the ruins at Uxmal and Palenque in Mexico.

British Columbia Rail offers unescorted train tours, like the popular eight-day trip from Vancouver to Whistler, Prince George and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies ($1,850 to $2,397, double occupancy). The one I plan to do someday is B.C. Rail's nine-day Totem Pacific Tour, which goes from Vancouver to Prince Rupert by train and from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Victoria Island, by B.C. Ferry ($1,580 to $2,047, double occupancy).

Unlike train tours, volunteer trips aren't for pleasure only, though they provide women travelers safe ways to see the world with groups of like-minded people who are moved to spend their vacation working to make the world a little better.

Two years ago, I spent a week on the beach in Costa Rica with volunteers and researchers monitoring the nesting habits of endangered leatherback sea turtles. The trip was one of many organized by the nonprofit Earthwatch Institute, which is dedicated to supporting scientific field research, education and conservation. My group of five volunteers, all women, stayed in a rustic dorm, ate our meals at a nearby cafe, idled during the day and spent our nights looking for leatherbacks, which come out of the sea after dark to lay their eggs. It was hard work, and the nights were endless, but seeing the huge, ungainly creatures lay their precious eggs was all the reward we needed.

Global Volunteers in St. Paul, Minn., sends groups of people all over the world to assist in a variety of development projects. This year, on a trip offered in May and June, volunteers will help build a school and library in the Chinese village of An-Shang ($2,095, 12 days); another trip takes volunteers to villages in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica to assist in classrooms and work on construction projects ($1,295, one week).

Such programs, says Global Volunteers co-founder Bud Philbrook, "are a safe way to travel to some very exotic places." Living conditions for participants vary from luxury hotels in southern Italy to dorms with cots on the floor in remote Tanzania.

For those who love the great American outdoors, Wilderness Volunteers has a variety of service trips in national parks, forests and monuments from Kentucky to Hawaii. Meals, tools and leadership are provided, but in some cases, participants must bring their own camping gear.

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